My mate Mel always came up to Lancashire in November for a short walking, drinking and eating break. Alas, he is now on kidney dialysis three times a week so it is simpler for me to make the trip down south to visit him and Pat. Trains from the north were delayed by sheep on the line so I jumped on a train to Crewe and picked up an express train from Liverpool to Euston.
Across the road from Euston is the Wellcome Collection an oasis of calm away from the busy road. This is a fascinating gallery with ever-changing exhibits related to medicine, health and the human condition. Today there was a gallery exploring our experiences of illness and mortality through the diaries of Jo Spence dying of leukaemia, a rather depressing experience. Alongside was a video installation from artist Oreet Ashley again exploring illness and our reactions to it in the digital age. Soft furnishings to recline in whilst watching the challenging films made me feel uncomfortable.
Moving into another gallery was an exploration of how as humans we affect climate change and its effects on the importance of water. One stunning video showed a quick food outlet slowly being submerged with flood water, the result of our planet pollution, with plastic straws and takeaway dishes floating through the screen. You get the idea.
I must admit I’d never come across their works before. S.J. Peploe (1871 – 1935), J.D. Fergusson (1874 – 1961), G.L. Hunter (1877 – 1931) and F.C.B. Cadell (1883 – 1935). A group of painters influenced by Post-Impressionism but moving into Modernism.
Wonderful landscapes, portraitures and vibrant still life. A splendid exhibition.
Sunday gave us a break as we visited the parkland in Windsor Great Park and Savill Gardens. We strolled around the lake and polo grounds. There was filming taking place in one area so we never saw the totem pole but nearby amidst stately cedar trees was the Cumberland Obelisk, in honour of the Duke of Cumberland [1721 – 1765] of Culloden fame, son of King George II.
The Guards Polo club has 160 playing members and 1000 social members. They play from April to September on Smiths Lawn [an airfield until 1945], that would be worth a visit. There is a bronze statue representing a polo player about to strike.
We concluded our modest circuit of the lawns, Mel was pleased with his two and a half miles walk so I treated them to an expensive coffee in Savill Garden’s cafe.
Monday morning was set aside for a visit to Watts Gallery and Artists Village at Compton on the North Downs. I first came across this whilst walking the North Downs Way with Mel in 2011, [what a difference a few years make] it was closed for restoration then but somehow we enjoyed a cup of tea from them. This little complex of galleries is based on the home and studio of Victorian artist G F Watts and his ceramicist wife, Mary Watts, highlighting their work and offering workshops and other exhibitions. The North Downs Way which Mel and I had traversed follows in parts a pilgrimage route from Winchester to Canterbury and Mary created a Celtic-style cross was in memory of her husband George. The memorial was made from terracotta dug from the surrounding land and was moulded at the Compton Pottery. The cross bears a variation of a Celtic shield-knot, protection from evil spirits or danger.
First port of call was the Watts restored studio up at the Watts house, Limnerslease, where two guides gave us an insight into their methods and ideology. There were numerous artefacts from their time illustrating their artistic skills.
Of particular interest was a reproduction of Mary’s method of communal tile manufacture for the Arts and Crafts Chapel down the hill [visited on the North Downs Way]. Alongside this was a vivid installation from a demolished Military Chapel in Cambridge, rescued just in time, which was meant to uplift the spirits of wounded soldiers.
Back in the main gallery, there is an outstanding space devoted to George Frederic Watts [1817 – 1904] I am not a big fan of flamboyant Victorian artists but this exhibition won me over. First, his portraits of contemporary notables were striking, then there were several studies of beautiful wistful ladies which served as figures for him in his later grand allegorical canvases displayed in the gallery.
A smaller gallery of his sculptures didn’t really show off the massive plaster cast model for his equestrian statue, Physical Energy, for the best. A bronze cast of this is in Kensington Gardens and a newer cast is to be erected at Compton. More accessible was a plaster statue of Lord Tennyson and his dog, cast for a statue in Lincoln Cathedral.
If that wasn’t enough a temporary exhibition downstairs highlighted paintings by John Frederick Lewis [1804 – 1876] who became famous for his Oriental paintings. Some of his colourful depictions of street life in Cairo, where he lived for several years, could be replicated today. I have wandered through some of his markets. Yet another artist that I knew nothing about until this weekend.
We retreated to their excellent cafe for a rest before a bit of retail therapy in the shop where I was seduced by huge price reductions on many books. There is much more to see here and it will be worth another visit next time I’m ‘down south’.