Wednesday, 16 March 2016

“Painting the Modern Garden, Monet to Matisse .“ At the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly



On Saturday 13th February this year Marilyn, Abi and myself went to see, “Painting the Modern Garden Monet to Matisse ,“ at the Royal Academy of Arts, just off Piccadilly.
It was an excellent exhibition displaying pictures from various artists who painted their gardens during the late 1800s into the early 1900s. Claude Monet’s garden pictures dominate, however the exhibition provided a detailed examination of the role of the garden in art and in peoples’ lives of the early 20th century right up to now. It covered all the modern genres of painting, Impressionism, Symbolism and the Avante Garde and also included artists from right across Europe. Of course there are pictures from Monets gardens at Argenteuil and finally Giverny, but also paintings by Gustave Caillebotte, Camille Pisarro and Pierre August Renoir. One painting by Pissaro depicts Monet painting in his garden at Arguenteuil. These garden pictures show the garden as a motif for modern life, relaxation and pleasure and not, as in the past, the utilitarian garden that grew vegetables and produce for eating and source of food and were, in a sense, a part of peoples survival. Other artists include John Singer Sergeants pictures executed in the Cotswold village of Broadway, Laurits Tuxen and Peder Kroyer in Denmark, Karl Nordstrom in Sweden, The German Impressionist Max Liebermann in Berlin and Joaquin Sorolla in Madrid. The American, Childe Hassam has some paintings displayed. He painted the garden of his friend, Celia Thaxter in Maine. This exhibition is not only about the relationship between individual artists and their gardens it also has a broader meaning that encompasses the human relationship with nature and how gardens affect us all psychologically and help shape us as human beings. The artists in this exhibition find symbolic meaning, explore the effects of combining colour and a deeper emotional world through painting their gardens. 


Claude Monet's Agapanthus triptych. ( The three parts are owned respectively by Nelson Atkins Museum, St Louis Art Museum and Cleveland Museum of Art in America.)


The final room of the exhibiton has a triptych of Monets waterlilies that he painted between 1915 and 1919 covering the period of the first world war. Monet remained at Giverny during this time, which is north west of Paris, throughout the war although many local village people and indeed members of his own family left the area for safety. Giverny was very close to the war front and always there was the possibility that the Germans could overrun Giverny and on their route to  Paris. Monet did not want to leave Giverny ,the source of his inspiration and  wanted to continue painting. Some critics suggest that paintings such as this triptych were Monets response to war and his fears. The triptych is enormous and standing in front of it your sight is filled with the painting and your mind becomes completely taken over. Monet has stopped painting any reference to land or connections with the world. The painting is all water surface with its plays of light and shadow and large patches of waterlily pads and flowers. I could feel myself being absorbed into its depths. It was a sensation of  sinking into the picture. It is as though in painting this Monet was passing into another world away from the terrible strife and unimaginable death  toll happening around him. It is an example of how we can interact with our gardens.

Blue bells at the bottom of my garden.

I can remember as a young child spending a lot of time in my grandparents’ house near to where I lived in Woolston, Southampton. Their garden had various meanings. I was shown the site where the air raid shelter had been dug to protect them from bombing during the Blitz. I was shown pictures of how the garden had been dug over to grow vegetables to help feed themselves during the time of rationing. By the time I was born in 1952 their garden had been turned back to a place of relaxation, flower borders and a lawn.   In the spring there was a patch, near the garden shed at the bottom of the garden, where lily of the valley grew and another patch that produced primroses. The fruit trees growing plums, greengages, cooking apples and eating apples and the cherry tree and the hazelnut tree that had been planted during the war to provide fruit to eat as a part of their austere diet still remained but they had become places of shade in the summer months and were a source of juicy and luscious fruits.


By Emil Nolde

However, it was Mr Biggs’s garden, who was their next door neighbour, that really took hold of my imagination. Sometimes my grandmother and I would squeeze through the gap in the fence  near the bottom of my grandparent’s garden and emerge into Mr Biggs garden. This was perfectly alright to do. The two families, all through the war years, had shared each other’s gardens. My grandparents had provided fruit from their trees for the Biggs family and the Biggs family, whose garden was twice the size of my grandparent’s garden, had a chicken run providing eggs and the occasional chicken to be roasted and eaten. They also had space for a giant compost heap which both families shared. They had a large murky pond covered in water lily pads that held a multitude of fish. The Biggs family shared my grandparents air raid shelter when the warning sirens howled across the district warning of an impending Luftwaffe bombing raid. My grandfather had built an extra-large shelter for this purpose. I remember as a young child walking through Mr Biggs garden. It was populated with all sorts of trees which made it seem like a forest with a tall brick wall dividing the bottom of my grandparents garden from his. It was darkly shaded and blinding splinters of sunlight broke through the foliage in places. The pond, its edges covered in mosses and reeds seemed deep in its glassy blackness and occasionally the back of, a what appeared to me, a giant fish, broke the surface. The compost heap, to one side of the pond, smelled musty and sour with rotting vegetation thrown on it. I can’t explain, but I liked the feeling of being there. It was dark and mysterious. I felt submerged in its shadowy depths. It felt like being inside a fantasy world.I must have felt then like Claude Monet in his garden or Camille Pissaro or Laurtis Tuxen or Joaquin Sorolla, in their gardens.


Monet's garden at Giverny.

At the back of the guidebook to this exhibition are two pages advertising events and lectures, free talks and family events associated with the exhibition. One particular event caught my eye. An afternoon talk, “ Provocations in Art: Contemporary Urban Gardening.” It was held on Saturday 27th February so I  missed it but the description of the talk got me thinking and exploring the websites of the people involved. It was chaired by the journalist and horticulturalist, Alys Fowler. The ,"guerrilla," gardener and author, Richard Reynolds, forager John Rensten and artist Wendy Shillman took part. I checked out Wendy Stillman first and discovered that she  and her husband have created a small urban garden on the roof top of their house near the BBC Centre just north of Oxford Circus and close to the British telecom Tower. A photograph on her website shows Wendy standing among her plants high above London with the BT tower in the background. She is an urban architect. She lives in an urban environment and combines producing her own food and using her house as a bed and breakfast for visitors to stay so they too can be inspired by her  experience in a big city. John Rensten lives and works in London too. He studies wild food such as fungi, wild flowers and fruits. He has set up an organization called, "Forage London." He takes groups around London and other parts of the country searching for wild, free growing foods and teaching about them. Discovering about Richard Reynolds and his ideas about ,"guerrilla," gardening really inspired me. Reynolds has written and published a book recently entitled,“On Guerrilla Gardening,” In the book he describes gardeners he has met around the world who garden in subversive ways.The book refers to horticultural “sleeper cells” and “shock and awe” plantings, and takes tactical advice from the writings of Che Guevara and Mao Zedong. It all sounds like  1970’s student protest stuff. However it is exciting to learn about his nighttime escapades to isolated pieces of waste land all over London with his followers and collaborators. . Overnight they  plant large waste areas and clean away the detritus of urban living. He has created twenty eight gardens so far. One article about him tells how the authorities, the local councils and the police have confronted him but on the whole have left him in peace. He defines ,"guerilla gardening," as, “ the cultivation of someone else’s land without their permission.” He used his tactics in the Tate Modern. On the 20th October 2015 Cruzvillegas created an installation that he said was inspired by ,"guerilla," gardens. He layed out a whole series of triangular planters filled with soil. However they were under the roof of the Tate Modern and there seemed no prospect of anything growing in these planters. Reynolds and his friend Vanessa Harden prepared some ,"seed bombs," and stood on the balcony overlooking the installation and began throwing the ,”bombs,” into the planters. The Tate Modern wasn’t sure how to react at first but decided it was a positive response to the installation and allowed them to continue with their obviously enthusiastic escapade. Even visitors of all ages attending the gallery joined in.


Wendy Stillman in her rooftop garden.

I think these people ,John Rensten, Wendy Stillman and Richard Reynolds are the modern equivalent of Monet and Matisse. They are taking, in some ways, the idea of gardens as being important to peoples emotional, physical and imaginative lives forward into the present day.They are responding to gardens and using gardens in various human contexts.


The lily pond at Giverny

The exhibiton of great paintings and the interviews with John Rensten, Wendy Shillman and Richard Reynolds have now inspired me to think of my garden in a range of different ways. I feel inspired to find out about what is there already, to start with. I have a buddleia, some blue bells that shoot up creating a carpet of lush green leaves and blue  flowers in the spring and a couple of  dilapidated looking apple trees,a hydrangea and some other shrubs I do not the names of. I want to plan how I can develop my garden creating colours, smells, light, shade and sounds. This exhibition has got me thinking. Watch this space. The Summer months will give me time to do something. In the words of Citizen Smith of the Tooting Popular front, “Power to the People,” and, my back garden.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

CLASS DIVISIONS AND OPPORTUNITIES IN SOCIETY


There was an article in The Guardian recently entitled, “Private school is still surest route to front rank professions.”Sally Weale, the education correspondent for The Guardian, explained that a privately educated elite still dominate the UK’s leading professions. The article mostly relayed the data collected by The Sutton trust educational charity without too much analysis provided. Does anybody really know why a child who goes to Eton has many more percentage points chance of going to Oxford or Cambridge or achieving a high ranking job in law, politics, medicine and journalism than a child attending, let’s say, Raynes Park High School, near where I live? Most would immediately say, well that is easy, they are better educated at Eton. Is it really that simple and is that belief really true?

The statistics are impressive. Sally Weare informs us that 7% of the population attend independent fee-paying schools but 71% of top military officers were educated privately, 74% of top judges had private education,51% of top journalists and 61% of top Doctors were all educated privately. Think back to that first stastic that   7% of the population attend private schools. 88% of the population attend state comprehensives. The 4% discrepancy can be accounted for by immigrants. That is an astounding set of statistics. Are state educated children really that much worse off?
Many might argue that the teaching is better in private education.  I know a lot of teachers very well.I have many teacher friends. Some teach in local comprehensives, some in state junior schools and some in high achieving private prep schools. I know two teachers who teach at St Paul’s, the top public school which George Osborne our Chancellor of the Exchequer attended. My friends and acquaintances are all trained to be teachers and are educated to the same degree standard. All are able and creative and exceedingly hard working teachers. I have taught in both private and state sectors, although I admit most of my career has been in state sector schools but that was my own choice. I just felt more inspired to teach children from ordinary homes and ordinary backgrounds reflecting my own background. So I don’t think it’s the teachers that cause the discrepancy. They would take umbrage if that is what I thought. Every single one of them works  hard and more often than not to the detriment of their own private lives and the state of their own wellbeing. The stress levels are very high.

Teaching.

I have met and taught probably thousands of children over my 35 years as a teacher. I have met children from impoverished backgrounds, comfortable middle class backgrounds and wealthy backgrounds. In one case an extremely wealthy background. I met an American gentleman and his family and spent a day with them touring London. The gentleman is a billionaire owning half the radio and TV stations across the States and the children were just ordinary friendly average kids who just happened to attend the top private schools in the States. In fact, their mother was most concerned about their education. They were not working hard enough and doing their best. I commiserated and we talked education and the trials and tribulations of bringing  children up. The worries of that mother sounded familiar. I have had friends who went to Wellington College and one attended Lancing College in Sussex. Most of my friends went to state comprehensives. I suspect other friends went to public schools but they haven’t let on. All are great people. They have worked hard throughout their lives and have achieved varying degrees of success in their own chosen fields. People are people, children are children. There must be something else causing these unbalanced statistics. To perhaps illustrate what is really going on I will tell the story of two boys and two families I know quite well.

 A surgeon? Who will get a job at this level?

Recently I have been teaching in a school near Chertsey in Surrey. For the whole of the Autumn term I taught one particular class every Monday and Tuesday. The children who go to the school come from the catchment area surrounding the school. The children’s mums and dads are builders, electricians, shopkeepers, firemen, lorry drivers, that sort of thing.  Some of the mums actually work in the school, either as classroom assistants or in the kitchens. So I taught Arthur, not his real name, on Mondays and Tuesdays. His mum works as a cook in the school kitchens. I am not sure about this but I don’t think there is a dad about. Arthur is always focused. He invariably does his best and he has a sunny personality, he listens well and always tries to do his best. His mum is such a positive person and always cheery herself. She wants to do her best for Arthur. She has to watch every penny she earns but she tries to give Arthur nice things sometimes. His mum knows that reading and books are a good thing. She gets him to the local library when she can. She helps him with his homework and makes sure he gets it in on time. Arthur and his mum’s expectations are to do as well as he can in school and pass his G.C.S.E.s eventually he may do A levels in the future. She says that she wants him to go to university.Arthur's ambition is to become  an electrician or car mechanic like his friends dad's he knows. All Arthur's friends and their families are the same. They have ambitions to get a trade and few nervously, think they might possibly go to university but are unsure about that. I always believe what you want you will get if you want it hard enough. I am sure they will achieve their ambitions. What must be pointed out is that Arthur and his mum do not have friends who are teachers, doctors, lawyers, journalists, company executives or the like.
The next person I am going to write about is Daniel or Dan, again, not his real name. He attended the same public school, Marlborough, that Prince William’s wife the Duchess of Cambridge attended. I knew Dan and his family well during my own student days during the 1970’s. I lived in a house in Bayswater owned by Dan and met most of his family at various times. Dan completed his first degree in biology at Kings College and got a 2:2, a not very illustrious result, and  went on to do an MA in Biology at Southampton before doing his PHD at Southampton. He isn’t really an academic but this is what he wanted to do. He believed he could do it and he did. He was a bit of a lad. Dan, supported Southampton Football Club as indeed I do. We went to a few games at the old Dell together. He had a thing about Linda Lovelace ( I will leave it up to you to do a Google search Ha! Ha!) and we enjoyed more than a few pints together  and partied like mad. I have some  memories of wild Bayswater parties where the social mix was mostly upper class, privately educated sorts and myself and Pete, a good friend of mine from Southampton. Apart from my Southampton accent and Pete's accent you would not have been able to separate us from our more wealthy friends. We were all debauched together!!!Dan’s family were very well to do. They owned a farm in Sussex and another farm in Cornwall. Dan's dad was a Harley Street surgeon who spent most of the week in his flat in Mayfair. Dan’s mum was an heiress to the BOVIS building company which constructs housing estates , mansions for the wealthy and builds major construction projects like motorways. She used to sit on the board of directors. Their friends included members of the aristocracy, politicians and the big shakers and movers of this world.  Dan knew them and their children  like old friends. He was very confident in their company. He knew no different. I must admit I felt a little overawed at times but when you start talking to people that is what they are, people.  Dan’s mum was lovely. She cooked a great English breakfast and honestly if you didn’t know any different, was just like any other mother.  Arthur’s mum and Dan’s mum would have got on like a house on fire.

A plumber. Who will get a job at this level of society?

So let’s have a think about this. We have Arthur, a decent human being, a friendly nice lad who wants to do his best and will achieve his ambitions I am sure. Then we have Dan, a decent human being also, a lad who wanted to do his best. What is the difference? Dan moved to the Staes and worked in Boston. He went on to work in the American health system doing biological research. Apart from a nice income from his job he had a large endowment supplied by his family. I am sure he is very wealthy although knowing Dan he would never flaunt it and you might not know if you met him. Ok he has a slightly posh accent but it is not overbearing. Arthur is poor and lives in straightened circumstances and probably always will. Dan and Arthur would get on well. I mentioned at the start of my account of Dan that his first degree was a 2:2 in Biology but he went on from there. I am absolutely certain that Arthur has the intelligence to at least get a 2:2 if he decided to go to university.
What are the differences then between the lives of Arthur and Dan? They are pretty obvious  really. They are social, family, expectations and confidence. Dan has lived and been brought up amongst the people he aspires to emulate and work with. Arthur’s aspirations of being an electrician or fireman belong to the society he has been brought up in. We talk nowadays of breaking class barriers. We talk about encouraging high ambitions. That is easy if you are born into a high strata of society. Those high aspirations come naturally.

The film ,Educating Rita, starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine addresses these issues. The film portrays the situation where if you break from one strata of society into another you can cause damage to yourself emotionally and socially if other things are not in place such as the eponymous level playing field, whatever that might be. Some people decide to ignore and try and forget their past if they take a hike up the social ladder but does that work? Surely you can’t really forget your past and if you try to you are hurting part of yourself. 

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore , are a prime example of what can happen. Peter Cook came from a well to do background. He was born in Torquay to a high ranking civil servant father and a talented mother. He attended Radley top public school and went on to Pembroke College Cambridge. Dudley Moore came from an ordinary lower middle class in Dagenham in the East End of London. He attended  an ordinary local junior school, got the 11 plus and went to his local grammar school and went on to Magdelan College Oxford. He also attended the Guildahll College of Music. He was a talented musician and composer.   Peter Cook was a great satirist and began and edited Private Eye. He was a script writer for other comedians and ran The Establishment Club in SOHO where Lennie Bruce performed.Dudley Moore used to perfom with his jazz group in the basement of The Establishment Club.Both Peter Cook and Dudley Moore had a talent for socially observant comedy and brilliant characterisation. They came together and formed the greatest comic English duo of all time.These two, from different backgrounds were able to meet on apparently equal terms.Were the class barriers removed in their case?They went on to be part of the Beyond The Fringe with Jonathen Miller and Alan Bennett and eventually went on to perform for David Frost on his, That was The week That Was, series. They created their own television series called, Not Only But Also.

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore

 Peter Cook and Dudley Moore became very close friends, probably too close. The relationship between them was almost telepathic. Peter Cook became dominant and Dudley Moore hated that. Moore remained in Hollywood after the tour of the, Beyond The Fringe, and became an international film star. They kept in touch but their relationship was never the same. It was class differences and attitudes that caused the rift. They were damaging each other through bitter infighting. There is always something to pay for changing your social strata. The present social systems we have, do not  allow for much movement between the classes.

My friend Dan, when he applies for a good job, he is interviewed by the sort of person he went to school with. The interviewers are people similar to his own family. He is confident and assured. They know his background and they know ,that he is one of them. They know he will fit. On the other hand, Arthur, when he has achieved his 2:2 degree, the same level as Dan’  s first degree, he might decide to apply for a good job. He will be uncomfortable. He will not have the experience of knowing the type of people that are interviewing him. He will lack confidence. He comes from a different world. It’s unlikely he will get the job.  It really is enough to make you angry. Of course there are things that Arthur can do to develop confidence and an assured demeanor but that is something he is going to have to learn the hard way.

Governments have talked about a classless society. They speak about encouraging children from all classes of society to go out and be achievers. This will not happen. The data at the start of this article proves it is not happening. A classless society can only be encouraged by government intervention and society evolving over a very long time. It can only be achieved through a sort of Darwinian adaptation over generations. The environment created by government policy and schools has got to be amenable to it though. One suggestion, though which would equalise our society in one stroke, would be to abolish private education completely and turn the Eton and Harrows in this world into state comprehensives. The comprehensive system can balance society. It can achieve outstanding academic results. The Finnish comprehensive system proves this. It could make a true meritocracy for all.