In London so I crossed to the Holborn area on my way to the British Museum because I wanted to seek out the statue of Fenner Brockway. It was created by Ian Walters and unveiled by Michael Foot in 1985 when the subject was still alive; he died in 1988 at the age of 99.
Throughout his life he campaigned for race equality, peace and anti-colonialism. He was a conscientious objector in the First World War but later thought that taking up arms might be necessary. His change of mind was influenced by the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.
He served as a Labour MP twice but with a twenty year gap between his two periods in the House of Commons. He lost his seat in 1964 which was surprising as it was a year of a Labour victory but he was considered to be a supporter of immigration to his constituency. He later served in the House of Lords and he continued to be a campaigner until his death.
In London, so I went to see the Leighton House Museum in the Holland Park area. I have long been an admirer of the work of Frederic, Lord Leighton and wanted to see the oriental influences in the decoration of the house he lived, worked and died in. I arrived just as the museum opened so had the place to myself (apart from the people who worked there, of course) for the first hour of my visit. Other visitors started arriving as I finished.
Frederic Leighton commissioned George Aitchison to build him a house that could be both home and studio. Additional parts were added in later years but the central feature was the Arab Hall with tiled walls, a dome and running water into a pool in the floor. Since I was on my own I kept stepping both ways through a doorway in and out of the drawing room since it was a contrast of East and West. Crossing between them seemed to be a good way of capturing the spirit of the British artist inspired by the East. A Millais painting hangs in the drawing room and Islamic inspired tiles decorate the Arab Hall; the combination is a good evocation of the man.
Queen Victoria visited the man and his house but she probably had lots of retainers with her. I was on my own! The works on show here are interesting but his best known paintings and sculptures are elsewhere in the big national galleries. Interestingly, there is a colour study for the painting ‘Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence’, a painting in the National Gallery that I have to visit every time I am passing that way!
An interesting fact I picked up on this visit was that he did not have his peerage for very long. He was made Baron Leighton in the 1896 New Year Honours List, making him the first artist to be honoured in this way, only to die the next day!
I have been going to this exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery for 9 years. This was the tenth exhibition so I must have missed just the very first year. As usual, I was impressed by so many pictures and played the game of awarding my own first and second prizes. So often, my selection is different from the judges but, even though I bow to their greater knowledge and expertise, I use just the criterion ‘do I like it?’. It works for me.
The winner as identified by the official judges was an amazing portrait of a refugee rescued from the Mediterranean. His face conveys so many things but the context makes it a powerful portrait of hope and determination. The young man stares at the camera. The photograph was taken by Cesar Dezfuli.
My personal favourites were the two young men locked in an embrace that seems both brotherly and strong. This image by Baud Postma was on the front cover of the catalogue. The third image that impressed me was also more to do with the context. Craig Easton photographed sixteen year olds from around Britain. The subjects also wrote about themselves. Paddy couldn’t write so his sister did it for him. He ‘spoke’ about being a traveller and about the loss of his brother and then father in a powerful testimony.
This annual visit to the National Portrait Gallery has become a fixture in my year.
In Porto, Portugal, so I had to see the sculpture by Jose Joao Brito called ‘Tragedy at Sea’. It is on the edge of the north beach at Matasinhos, a suburb of the city. The memorial is here because on 1st December 1947 four trawlers from the fishing community of the area were lost at sea with the loss of 152 fishermen. The figures in the sculpture represent the many family members who were affected by the loss of a loved one.
The work was unveiled in 2005. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In Winchester so I had to walk down through the city to the statue of King Alfred which I first saw on a boyhood visit. It is reassuring to see him still in place. The King of Wessex was a fifth son so was never expected to rule the kingdom; he became an active student instead and devoted his time to learning. He earned the title ‘great’ because he had a unique combination of statesmanship, scholarship and military skill.
The statue looking up the main street of the city shows him holding his sword in a gesture of victory or authority or both. He stands at 17 feet from the plinth so is an imposing figure. The artist Hamo Thorneycroft was a member of the Royal Academy. His statue of Alfred was erected in 1899 to mark a thousand years since his death.
Despite being clean shaven in most other depictions of Alfred, including coinage from his reign, this sculpture has him with a full beard; the type of beard those late Victorians thought befitted a King!
In Winchester for the first time in years, so off to see the Elizabeth Frink sculpture of ‘Horse and Rider’ erected in 1975 at the top of the High Street. It is a companion piece to the one of the same title in Mayfair, London installed a year earlier. The man is naked and sits on the horse with no saddle or bridle.
In Manchester so off to find the sculpture called ‘Casuals’. It is on the canal side on land that used to be industrial when the Manchester Ship Canal was at its height. Designed by the artist Broadbent, it is a representation of the union cards dock workers needed to be able to gain employment. The conditions were harsh, though, and the men were not guaranteed work. They needed to line up every day to see if they would be taken on. The casual nature of this employment made it very difficult for people to know if they could support their families. It also led to conflict when the same group of men were competing for the places on a job.
Names and photographs of some of the workers are included in the artwork which now sits on the walkway along the canal near to the regenerated Salford Quays.