Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Couch Potato Goes Deco

Art Deco Icons.
The complete series [DVD] 
presented by David Heathcote.

Art Deco is synonymous with glamour: Fred and Ginger, Busby Berkeley, Tamara de Lempicka, cocktails and long cigarette holders on ocean liners.  Settle down on the couch for a look at the 1930s through neon-tinted spectacles as David Heathcote guides us round four of Britain's Art Deco icons.

First we spend a night at Claridge’s Hotel in London’s Mayfair. I hope the BBC picked up the check! The art deco suite is glamorous yet comfortable; we are allotted our own butler/valet, who starts by unpacking and putting everything away. Sinking chin-deep into a bubble bath, we notice two bell-pulls beside the tub: one for the butler and one for the maid. The mind boggles.

We explore the hotel's Art Deco makeover of the 1930s, which transformed it from a staid Victorian establishment into a fashionable, up-to-the-minute destination for the rich and famous. The sign above the smoking room door says Fumoir, and the room positively exudes sophistication. You expect to see Paul Heinreid lighting two cigarettes and giving one to Bette Davis. Smoking was sexy and glamorous in the Thirties!

Next stop is the 10-storey London Trans-port HQ. When it was built in the 1930s, it was the highest skyscraper in London. It was an ambitious and controversial design that incorporates a lot of Deco features, but I didn't think it was really a typical example of an art deco building. 

What I liked much more, was the tour of several art deco tube stations from the era, the magnificent collection of London Transport posters, and the old kiosks and signs in the museum. Is anybody else old enough to remember those enamelled WAY OUT signs, with the pointing hand emerging from a perfectly starched cuff?  

Next we visited Casa Del Rio - a remark-able Art Deco house hidden away in rural Devon. I had never heard of it before. It was built in the 1930s by Walter Price, who visited California and fell under the spell of Hollywood. He decided to recreate Pickfair, the glamorous mansion of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, on a hillside in Devon, facing the sea. Very beautiful, seen from below.

Casa del Rio is a transplanted Hollywood Spanish hacienda, its Deco interior complete with black-and-white marble floors, marble staircase whose treads look like piano keys and lots of chrome, black glass, and mirrors. 

I liked the electrical gadgets that were the hallmark of stylishness in the era when anything American was considered modern and cutting-edge. The not-quite-automatic toaster, the Bakelite radio, the futuristic (now retro!) cocktail shaker … very glamorous but seen through modern eyes a bit lame. Quite endearingly so!

For our final adventure, we board the Orient Express at Victoria Station in London and head off for Venice. (It is interesting to compare this episode to the Orient Express documentary with David Suchet, also a BBC production.)

Fellow-passengers are James and Shirley Sherwood. James bought fifteen much-neglected Orient Express carriages in the Seventies, including the two in which Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express was filmed. James and Shirley talk engagingly about the challenge of restoring the original Art Deco luxury of the romantic train.

I liked the luxurious, yet practical fittings of the sleeping compartment and the elegant, beautifully appointed bar and dining compartments. The Alpine scenery is also spectacular. 

I'm sure the passengers enjoyed their three days' opulence on wheels, but they would have to be relieved to disembark in Venice, because for all its luxury, the train has no air conditioning and the washing facilities are a bit basic: no shower!

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Couch Potato Does Spring Cleaning

Petworth House in Sussex is one of those Stately Homes of England of which Noel Coward sang so eloquently. The oldest parts of the fortified manor house founded by Henry de Percy in the 13th century, still survive, but the mansion was extensively rebuilt in 1688 by Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset. For the past 250 years the estate has belonged to the Wyndham family: the current head of the family is Lord Egremont. The house and deer park were handed over to the nation in 1947 and are now managed by the National Trust. Lord Egremont's family live in the south wing, allowing the remainder to be open to the public.
The house contains an important collection of furniture, paintings and sculptures, including works by J. M. W. Turner and Van Dyck, exquisite, fragile wood carvings by Grinling Gibbons, and unique classical sculptures. There is also a 1592 terrestrial globe, believed to be the only one in the world still in its original state.

"Petworth House: The Big Spring Clean", is a fascinating BBC series of six episodes, narrated by the genial and erudite Andrew Graham-Dixon.

Every autumn, the Trust puts its 300 houses 'to bed', They close to visitors for the winter, and the professional conservationists move in to clean the artworks and the house itself. This work requires not just hard labour, but delicate hands and an in-depth knowledge of conservation science.

They work in almost freezing conditions and behind closed shutters. Heat and sunlight are bad! Paintings and furnishings fade, bugs breed, mould grows! Andrew dons his winter woolies, warm beanie and boots, and pitches in to help. The magic that happens in these winter months is a miracle to behold, as we get a close look at wonderful art treasures and the very fabric of the house.  

It is not a matter of dusters and vacuum cleaners – many of the art works are too delicate to touch even with a feather, and have to be cleaned by that thing the dentist uses to puff a bit of cold air on your tooth. They puff the dust away and suck it from the air with a funnel. The carpets have to be rolled back to expose the insect eggs that were laid during the summer, scaffolding is erected to clean the mouldings and ceiling paintings. The clocks and the curtains, the paintings, furniture and the kitchen utensils are all cleaned and tended by specialists, the acres of parquet floors are rubbed with beeswax by hand, on bended knee.
Having watched this series, I will be wearing a hazmat suit next time I visit a Stately Home, because  now I know how much grime I am shedding and how much damage my mere presence is creating!

I borrowed the series from the Eastern Regional Libraries. 



The Escher Museum

Visiting the world's great art museums, we sometimes overlook the many small museums which house wonderful things to see, in interesting and historical buildings.
Metamorphosis: Birds into Fishes
One such is the Escher Museum in The Hague. It is housed in what the Dutch call merely Het Paleis (The Palace), as if it were the only palace in town. (It isn't.) It sits at the top, or posh, end of a long, leafy boulevard lined with ambassadorial residences. You will know which is the American one because there is a tank parked outside it, lowering the tone.

Het Paleis used to be the residence of Queen Emma, the great-great-granny of the present  king. She acted as regent after her husband King Willem III popped his clogs, while her daughter, Crown Princess Wilhelmina, was under age.

The former Princess Emma of Waldeck and Pyrmont was 20 when she married the 62-year old king, once described as "the greatest debauchee of the age." He had previously been rejected by Emma's sister Pauline and a few other assorted princesses.
King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands,
with Princesses Amalia, Alexia and Ariane 

My Dutch friend Arno filled me in on all the royal goss: The Oranges are nearly as soap-operatic as the Windsors! Richer and better looking than the Windsors,though, if plumpish. Who can blame them if they put on a few kilos, with all that tempting Dutch cheese. On the upside, they have endless rows of shining white teeth from all the calcium.

Anyway, there it is, Emma’s palace, more of a big posh house than a palace really, but very rococo and they were not shy with the gold paint. There is a very grand staircase, which only Queen Emma and her two favourite ladies-in-waiting were allowed to use. It was the backstairs for everyone else. Luckily there are lifts for the museum visitors today. The grand staircase is still roped off!

I’m surprised Queen Emma didn’t break a leg, because every doorway has an inch-high lintel for the unwary to stumble over. A stripe of that gold paint on the floor to draw attention to the hazard would have been a good idea, but sadly I saw no suggestion box. I don’t suppose Queen Emma took kindly to suggestions … I saw pictures of her and she was a stocky little doorstop of a woman who didn’t look as if she brooked backchat.

About the collection I don’t need to tell you … all the Eschers you have ever seen on posters and coasters, are there. The really good bit is on the top floor, where they have all these optical illusions and trompe l’oeil stuff.

You can look through peepholes into cabinets where the picture is in 3D and the birds and animals move, and you can don virtual reality goggles and step right into some of the pictures – those ones like the Belvedere, where the stairs go nowhere, and the one where down is up, and the one with the chequered floor and the ladders that reach impossible places. It is a lot of fun. You can watch the birds metamorphosing into fishes; thank goodness we are dealing here with Maurice Escher and not with Franz Kafka!

I spent the whole afternoon there and my brain was fizzing all the way home.

The Grand Budapest McGuffin

As long as there have been stories, there have been McGuffins, but it took that fat, sleazy old genius Alfred Hitchcock to give them a name. (People who are both a genius and a really, really nice person are very rare. Try to name three.)

 In 1935 Hitchcock filmed John Buchan's thriller, The 39 Steps. The story revolved round the hero's attempts to stop a spy organisation from  stealing a Top Secret document. It doesn't matter what the document is. It might just as well have been a diamond necklace or a distressed damsel that he was trying to keep out of their evil clutches. Hitchcock came up with "McGuffin" for the item that drives the plot.

The McGuffin needn't even be anything tangible. In North by Northwest, Cary Grant spends the entire film falling into one scrape after another as he is pursued by both villains and the CIA, all due to a case of mistaken identity. Who he is mistaken for and what the pursuers want from him when they catch him, is incidental. It's just the McGuffin that leads the story from one suspenseful sequence to the next.

Now that The Grand Budapest Hotel is in all the cinemas and racking up the favourable reviews, it is a safe bet that our members will be queueing up for tickets and choc-tops at the local  multiplex. I thought this would be a good time to take a look at the film's McGuffin, a priceless Renaissance masterpiece called Boy With Apple, by the artist Johannes Van Hoytl the Younger.

You will search your art encyclopedia in vain for Van Hoytl – the picture was painted for the movie by artist Michael Taylor, who had his tongue firmly in his cheek. He has laden it with enough symbolism for a dozen Art History lectures and several doctoral dissertations.

We have the mysterious note pinned to the curtain, the boy's direct gaze, his extravagantly detailed codpiece and the way he holds his long, slender fingers in a gesture which is a conventional mannerist device expressing a sensual tone. Add the apple in his hand, in close proximity to the prominent codpiece. The apple itself is symbolic on many levels, both biblical and classical. Eve's apple of temptation, the golden apple with which Paris chose the goddess Venus ... and just for a bit of added ambiguity, the apple has a few Caravaggio-like blotches on its surface: it is already beginning to decay.

Is the young man looking to choose a wife or a lover? Is the blemished apple symbolic of a doomed love affair?  Or is it a portent of mortality – does he have a dread disease of which he is yet unaware?

What fun Michael Taylor must have had, painting that portrait. And what fun for us, the audience, when we get the Art History in-joke: the villain is so enraged when he sees Boy With Apple is missing, that he smashes the picture that has been hung up in its place. The replacement is immediately recognisable to us as a real-life Egon Schiele, a priceless teasure he’s obliterated in his fury at losing a fictional  McGuffin.