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.

More on Moore

Henry Moore Foundation. Miners at the Coalface
Henry Moore, Four Studies of Miners at the Coalface, 1942. Photo: The Henry Moore Foundation archive. Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation.
Tunnel shelterers Henry Moore Foundation
Henry Moore, Study for ‘Tube Shelter Perspective: The Liverpool Street Extension’, 1941. Inv. HMF 1649. Photo: The Henry Moore Foundation archive. Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation
Hill Arches. Henry Moore sculpture at Waddesdon
Hill Arches 1973, reproduced by kind permission of the Henry Moore Foundation Photo: Mike Fear

The last of summer beckoned us over to Waddesdon Manor – a quick enough and largely traffic-free cycle ride from here even if it does involve a hill or two. It was the exhibition of 100 of Henry Moore’s drawings at the Coach House that attracted us (though there’s much more to Waddesdon Manor, if you have the time to go regularly). We’ve been trying to get over to see From Paper to Bronze all summer and felt it was this weekend or never, before the doors close on October 25.

As so many of Moore’s monumental sculptures feature prominently in urban and accessible spaces, his name is associated with a recognisable style. What may be less well-known to those of us used to seeing his statues in parks, precincts and on university campuses was his ability as a draughtsman. On entering the exhibition you’re immediately struck by the serenity of the double sculpture King and Queen as they oversee the space with a quiet but imposing presence. Originally intended for an outdoor landscape, they also work well close-to – Moore paid meticulous attention to the delicate detail of the couple’s hands and feet and the view of their backs. For my part, I was particularly pleased to see an industrious spider had set up home in the King’s crown, lending him a benevolent air.

The evolution of the man from youth to twilight years is expressed through his artistic eye.

But for all the statues’ authority, it was the depth in the drawings on display that struck me most. Moore was an inveterate sketcher who produced thousands of such works, his output varying in quantity and quality according to his age and purpose. The evolution of the man, from directed youth to influenced young scholar, to innovative master, before he settled into the unchallenging sketches of his twilight years, is expressed through his artistic eye. The exhibition’s set-up along a timeline gave it a palpable wistfulness, I felt. Through the drawings I could trace the vigour of youth, the confidence of middle years and the decline into decrepitude (Moore suffered arthritis in old age). His work reflected his moods, from love and admiration through despair and anguish to hope and on to acceptance. Most striking for me were the designs commissioned for textiles and the drawings he made during his period as a war artist, recording the extraordinary nightly scenes in the London Underground and in the coal mining pits of Yorkshire.
Maybe the autumn winds and angle of the sunlight lent the gallery a melancholic mood that day, but I was left with an impression of a way of life lost and wondered what today’s artists, viewed in 30 years’ time, will have left the next generation, either in the way of monumental art, teaching foundations or pure visual pleasure.

If you can’t get along to Waddesdon it’s worth a trip to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park which Moore helped to found or a visit to the Henry Moore Studios in Hertfordshire.

NB: Exhibition details

From Paper to Bronze runs until October 25, after which the manor adopts its Halloween programme over the half-term holiday. It dons its annual winter festival lights and looking forward to Christmas and this year’s Bruce Munro installation.

*After checking in at the new visitors’ car park cyclists can pedal all the way to the top of the hill and use the cycle racks in the staff car park. It’s well worth the extra effort for the views across Aylesbury Vale and beyond and the thrill of the return journey down the other side of the hill.

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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An afternoon at Windmill Hill

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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 world and the plain nosey are excited that Windmill Hill opens this weekend. It will house the Waddesdon archive and has a reading room, complete with artworks from the former BP building, recycled glass sculptural lighting and a benevolent gorilla on guard outside.

It was blowing a gale and the rain was falling in sheets the day I was taken around with three other journalists – yet the weather could do nothing but emphasise the building’s harmony with the landscape. The water polished the flagstones and ribbons of rain trickled down the windows, while the grey drifts drenched the hillsides beyond. If you’re visiting Waddesdon Manor over the summer, make time to get up to Windmill Hill. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

December update – Lights, Strictly Christmas and action

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I’ve been busy interviewing, writing and bringing up my (not very small) babies… and I’ve got the lurgy. Here’s a taster of what my diary has been filled with recently.

My daughter celebrated her 18th birthday last week. It’s true to say I have no idea where the time’s gone since she was born. It barely seems two years since I was asking myself how my son had reached 18. I can’t say I don’t feel my age since bits of me are creaking and, with the lurgy, croaking, but 18 years? Really? I’d better get used to the idea my baby is all grown up, however, she’s interviewing for a place to study medicine at various universities around the country – another pull on my time as well as hers.

The night before her interview at Liverpool University I whizzed along to Waddesdon to see the Christmas lights at the Manor. This is one of my favourite invitations of the year. Waddesdon Manor ‘s current series of Christmas themes is the great European cities settled in by the Rothschilds’ banking sons – last year was Frankfurt, this year, Paris. Waddesdon Manor really is magical any time, but with the bachelor’s wing specially decorated for Christmas (the planning takes months) and the trees outside spectacularly lit it’s well worth a visit. I went on the guided tour with an acquaintance who also happens to be the marketing director at another of the nation’s grand houses. I’m sure she won’t mind me mentioning she was more than a little wistful when she saw how beautiful the Manor’s Christmas decorations were, and she had to have two buns at the press tea to make up for it.

Galloping through to December I found myself interviewing Fern Britton (that’s the Ready Steady Cook Fern, not the other one, in case you’re one of those people who get Fearne Cotton and Fern Britton muddled). It required a quick turnaround with only a day’s notice. I was busy all morning and into the afternoon, but Fern and I arranged to meet at the Iain Rennie Hospice at Home office at 5pm – it’s a charity she’s supporting with her renewed enthusiasm for cycling. I sat in the car park waiting for a while, then knocked on the door and met up with the IRHH’s PR officer, Gemma.

As we made a cup of tea, Fern arrived and what struck me was her poise and elegance and down-to-earth entrance. She parked her little run around in the car park and skipped in from the rain. Everybody complimented her on her looks – she was glammed up thanks to the make-up artists at the BBC, where she’d spent the afternoon recording the trailer for Strictly Christmas. There was no mistaking the subtext in the comments – she’s lost stones in weight and every woman in the office noticed. Fern was candid enough to tell me about her battle with the bulge in the interview. I’ll post it here just as soon as it’s published.

Within days of interviewing Fern an e-mail inviting me to interview House of Commons Speaker John Bercow turned up in my in-box. I’ve been chasing this interview for several months, but with the election and his busy schedule there’s been no space in his diary for me. I always approach my interviewees with an open mind. That’s not to say I don’t read up on them before I meet them or I give them an easy time, but there’s also no point standing on the sidelines with an agenda and if you want a fair interview you have to be an impartial observer. I did ask John Bercow for his views about the HS2 Link (which will affect many of his constituents adversely) and question why there was such a furore over the omission of LibDem and Labour candidates from the Buckingham ballot paper last May. I hope my interviews give you the feeling you were in the room with us and that the questions I asked were those you wanted answered. You can let me know what you think of the interview when I’ve posted it, but in meantime it’s on hold for a couple of months until the magazine that is paying me for it can fit it in.

In the run-up to Christmas I’m writing an article for The English Home which has been fun, though with my lurgy flattening my senses, I’m feeling slightly worried about when I’m going to chase up all the loose ends. The deadline is next week.

It’s been a busy month, so I’ve had little time for fiction writing – I know there are people out there who say you should make time if you want to be a writer of fiction. I assume these people don’t have five children at home and have a living to earn and a household to run at the same time. Or maybe they have a wife. I have been working on Fallen, since my other fiction has taken a bit of a back seat at the moment. I have taken to reading a couple of light (if there is such a thing) crime novels while I get over my ‘flu-like lurgy. They’re not my usual thing, but I thought I ought to get a bit more of a handle on the genre if I’m writing what seems to be shaping up into a crime mystery sci-fi thriller. I’ll post the next instalment of Fallen soon, I promise.

In the meantime I wish you a Happy & Healthy Christmas. Now where’s my box of tissues?