British Folk Art at Tate Britain

The British Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain was ‘the first major historical exhibition of British folk art at a national art museum’ and encompassed work from the 17th to the mid-20th century.  As the exhibition was at pains to point out Folk Art could include an extremely diverse range of objects and this exhibition can only hope to highlight a narrow range of themes because, as the booklet mentions, Folk Art is an ‘elusive, contradictory and contested term’.

Shop SignsThe first thing we are confronted by is a wall of shop signs, ranging from gigantic shoes to tobacco rolls made from a range of materials.  It was interesting to note that the reason for the decline of visual shop signs was related to the increase in literacy of the general population and the availability of plate glass for shop windows.

There was a decent range of paintings of various types including what we would now call mixed-media.  I was particularly impressed by the ‘wool-work’, often carried out by sailors in their spare time.  Essentially they are stitched pictures, but not the small stitches of tapestry, they usually incorporated longer lines of thread which build up to form theGoose Woman by George Smart scene. 

Of the all the images on display the one I found most amusing was the painting The Four Alls (c.1850) by DJ Williams.  It is unusual to know the name of specific folk artists as most were untutored and usually ignored by the art establishment (except for the few who became collectable and well known in their life-time, such as George Smart and his Goose Woman pictures).  DJ Williams was not one of the ‘known’ artists but a painter of signs – The Four Alls is a tavern signboard from Pant, Caerhun, near Bangor, Wales – and I love it, because it’s as truthful today as it was the day it was painted (as can be seen below).

The Four Alls (c.1850) by DJ WilliamsThere were a few examples of work by Alfred Wallis who was one of the rare folk artist who were lauded by the art establishment during his lifetime and is still collectable; but I found his work a little contrived or forced.  He may well have begun painting in this style but I felt that, probably due to his popularity, he had to maintain that particular form of the naive and to me the pictures on display looked laboured.

I found the most impressive pieces were probably two quilts and a cockerel made of pieces of bone.

Bellamy QuiltOne quilt was made by a couple (Herbert Bellamy and Charoltte Alice Springall of Great Yarmouth) in their engagement year (1890-91) and is a lovely record of many aspects of their shared life and interests.

The other quilt was made over a decade by a tailor, James William, in his spare time and features a diverse range of items including Noah’s Ark, a Giraffe, and a steam train crossing the Cefn Railway Viaduct.  It was one of the few items that was exhibited a number of times and Tailor's Quiltat least once in Williams life time (1876 at the Wrexham Art Treasures Exhibition) and was also exhibited by his grandson at the 1925 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, London.

The cockerel was quite magnificent and made by a prisoner of the Napoleonic Wars, incarcerated in the Norman Cross Depot near Peterborough.  The prisoners would not have been allowed tools or knives so they must have improvised tools – apparently small shard of broken glass have been found at the site of the prison amongst other small carved bone items.

Bone CockerelThe room full of ships’ figureheads was for me a bit of a waste of a room – one or two would have been enough, or maybe because I grew up near an historic naval town they did not hold the same level of interest.

The most perplexing items on display were the ‘God-in-a-bottle’ – strange, intricately carved wooden objects (often ladders, crosses or fans) contained in glass jars full of water.  Their true meaning has been lost, but it is believed that they acted as a collective charm to protect a household or group of workers.

This bizarre, ritualistic element of the exhibition was a welcome twist on the God-in-a-bottlegenerally wholesome theme of the exhibition and lead nicely into the film I had planned to watch that evening: The Wicker Man – what else!

Overall it was an excellent exhibition and about time!  This was the art of real people, the vast majority who lived on and worked the land – a million miles from the Turners and Constables of the era, and possibly more relevant to our understanding of the past.

My one complaint was that it should have been much bigger (at £14.50 entry fee it really should have been!) – I would have liked to have seen more items and explored some of the more ‘elusive’ and ‘contradictory’ aspects of the lives of our agrarian and seafaring ancestors.

The exhibition at Tate Britain has ended (10 June 31 August 2014), but it has transferred to the Compton Verney, Warwickshire and will be on between the 27th September to 14th December 2014.


Transarquitetônica by Henrique Oliveira

I’m beginning to wonder if the theme of ‘the hidden exposed’ or ‘nature unearthed’ is becoming a trend in international art.  This is not the first time that I’ve posted about roots in a gallery.  What is causing this subterranean investigation?  Is it something to do with our current scramble for political transparency, or a general search for the root of things, or is it linked to ever-present environmental concerns?

Transarquitetônica by Henrique Oliveira is a huge installation piece which takes over the MAC (Museu de Arte Contemporânea) in Sao Paulo.  This is by no means Henrique Oliveira’s his first monumental wood-based artistic exploration, as can be seen on his website, but this one you can enter and explore both the outside and the inside.

Just like the two different ways to view this piece, I have two different views on the feel of it (from the comfort of my living room – I’d love to experience it first hand, but Sao Paulo is a long and expensive flight from the UK!).  It’s natural aesthetic draws me to it, yet it’s mammoth, almost bloated scale makes me quite wary of it.  The interior of the piece makes you feel you are entering the burrow of a giant mole or a well worn cave, but when it evolves into crude basement-like building material, then concrete blocks, you might feel as though you are entering into a horror movie.  Whichever view you take of it, it is certainly interesting!

Photos by Elaine Maziero.

Henrique Oliveira - Transarquitetonica 1

Transarquitetonica 1a

Henrique Oliveira - Transarquitetonica 2

Transarquitetonica 4

Transarquitetonica 5

Transarquitetonica 6

There is also an article about the exhibition on designboom.

Ruin Lust at Tate Britain

I came out of Ruin Lust, an exhibition at Tate Britain all about ruins in art, with very mixed emotions – some of the exhibits had elements of greatness, yet the exhibition as a whole disappointed on many levels.

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window, 1794Of course I was most significantly drawn to the almost mystical depictions of ruins from the Romantic era – the misty, picturesque scenes of decay, with nature resurgent where man had failed.  I had seen many of the paintings on display before in other museums and galleries (such as Turner’s watercolour The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window (see left), and Paul Nash’s Pillar and Moon), but I was hoping for a much wider selection from all the periods covered in this exhibition.

For instance, simply typing into Google some relevant words brings up a far wider scope of art than at this exhibition.  I appreciate the argument that of course typing into Google will bring up a huge range anyway, but I specifically chose to use the word ‘scope’ for that very reason – it’s not all about quantity.  Yes we have one epic canvas from John Martin (The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum) and a few large photographs of ruinous WWII German gun emplacements (see below) from Jane and Louise Wilson – but what about pieces like Eldena Ruin near Greifswald by Caspar David Friedrich, or David Roberts crumbling Egyptian temples, or The Entire City by Max Ernst, or the photographs of Derelict Detroit by Philip Jarmain that I covered in a previous post.Azeville 2006 by Louise Wilson and Jane Wilson born 1967, born 1967Apart from the limited scope of the exhibition I found that many of the ‘rooms’ had quite tenuous links with the theme of ruins.  I know that curators like to make points and relate everything to our modern world, but to have a whole section called Ruins in Reverse and claim a ‘rise into ruins’ seemed a little desperate.

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi - Michelangelo's 'David' (1987)I don’t know if it was my predisposition to Romanticism that caused me to have trouble comprehending the point of this ‘room’ but the idea that to build can be a ruinous act felt extremely pessimistic.  Inevitably the examples on display were of post war modernism – concrete, tower blocks, graffiti, that sort of thing, (as usual!).  But what is so often forgotten about that time was the intense need for social housing, the slum housing they replaced and the hope and optimism with which they were initially built and accepted by the inhabitants.  The image we are usually fed of decaying concrete and graffiti is the idea that they were modernist slums, and in some cases they were (and many became), but on the whole they were certainly successful in the early years, before the decades of neglect by town councils.  To me part of the appeal of ruins is that they represent an optimism that either died, was killed off, or simply failed – if they had emphasised the failed optimism of post war architecture then I would have understood and appreciated it far more readily, rather than the idea of building into decay!  To build is and always will be an inherently optimistic endeavor and not pursuit of the pessimism of ruination.joseph gandy bank of england

The first couple of rooms were by far the best, with Joseph Gandy’s depiction of John Soane’s newly finished Bank of England in ruins (above), the drama of John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (which has a fascinating phoenix like history of it’s own) and a couple of engravings by Gustave Dore and Piranesi (reminding me yet again that I really need to get a book of Dore’s engravings).John Martin The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

The fourth room was dedicated to Tacita Dean – another room I didn’t really get.  It included a few photographs and a film, but made reference to her work featuring the redundant technology of Denge acoustic mirrors and a former East Berlin TV tower, but it featured neither of them!  It felt like another wasted opportunity.

Strangely, after my little rant, I am actually glad I went to see the exhibition – if only so that I didn’t regret not going, I might have been left with the feeling that it was far better than it actually turned out to be.

I quite often buy the exhibition catalogue after my visits, and I still left with the intention of buying it (so contrary to my review, there was something good about the exhibition) but when IPatrick Caulfield - Ruins (1964) had a look at the book it was a complete disappointment – it was extremely small and thin and was not not a catalogue of the exhibition but a few pictures and an essay or two.  Needless to say, I didn’t buy it.

If you are interested in seeing the exhibition yourself there is only a week left – it closes on the 18th May 2014.




Cheapside Hoard at The Museum of London

Just over two weeks ago I went to a fascinating exhibition of jewellery at the Museum of London and spent a good few hours browsing the extensive collection – now that’s something I didn’t think I ever hear myself saying.

This was no ordinary bunch of gleaming metal though.  When it was first discovered it was called The Cheapside Hoard, and having seen it I can honestly say that it undeniably fits that category and is a very rare treasure indeed.  Because it was split up soon after its discovery this is actually the first time in over a hundred years that the complete collection has been in one place and on display to the public.

Discovered by labourers working with pickaxes in an old cellar on Cheapside (not far from where the Museum of London is now), the buried wooden box they uncovered was full of what turned out to be over 400 pieces of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewellery.

Kept in darkened galleries, behind a heavy duty turnstyle gate and guarded by security, the first items you come across are intricately made necklaces, with tiny enamelling and studded with gleaming jewels.   The image below in no way shows off the beauty or delicacy of the necklaces – but the way they are displayed in the exhibition, suspended in mid-air in large glass cabinets, certainly does.  The lighting and the setting of all the items is extremely well done and there really is no substitute for seeing them first hand.Selection of necklaces from the Cheapside Hoard: 16th - 17th cenIt is the workmanship which amazes with all their tiny details and demonstrates the extent to which the wealthy, even in the 17th century could obtain extremely high quality items of exquisite craftmanship, made of precious stones from all across the world.

The gemstones demonstrate the international trade of luxury goods in the period, with emerald from Colombia, topaz and amazonite from Brazil, spinel, iolite, and chrysoberyl from Sri Lanka, ruby from India, Afghan lapis lazuli, Persian turquoise, peridot from the Red Sea, as well as Bohemian and Hungarian opal, garnet, and amethyst, and pearls from Bahrain.  Large stones were frequently set in box-bezels on enamelled rings.  Most of the gemstones are cabochon cut, but there are a few with more modern faceted cuts, including rose cut and star cut. A particularly large Columbian emerald, originally the size of an apple, had been hollowed out to accommodate a Swiss watch movement dated to around 1600. There are also a Byzantine gemstone cameo, a cameo of Queen Elizabeth I, an emerald parrot, and some fake gemstones made of carved and dyed quartz.  (quoted from the Wikipedia page here)

Cheapside Hoard 2When the hoard was buried can be pinned down to somewhere between 1640 and 1666 – there is a stone seal with the arms of William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford who was given that title in 1640 and the cellar belonged to a building which stood before The Great Fire of London in 1666.

So, why was such an incredibly valuable amount of jewels buried and why was it never recovered?  As there is no record to provide us with an insight into the true story of the hoard, we are only left with conjecture.  Who was the person who buried the box – was he a wealthy customer, a trader, or a poor crafts-person?  Was it buried in desperation just before the fire of London took a hold of the building?  Or, was the Civil War to blame and the owner killed in battle?  We may never know.

Museum Of LondonThe Museum of London is stones throw from the Barbican Centre and a short walk from St Paul’s Cathedral – it is a fascinating museum and we had a good long look round after seeing the exhibition, wondering why we hadn’t been there before.

The museum of London tells the story of the world’s greatest city and it’s people.  It cares for more than two million objects in it’s collections and attracts more than 400,000 visitors per year.  It holds the largest archiological archive in Europe. (who we are).

The entrance is typical 60’s architecture – you approach it by a bridge over a road, then follow a sweeping covered walkway which encompasses a small garden, before entering the tall foyer of the museum itself.  The building is worth a visit, the museum is worth a visit, and the exhibition (which is on until the 27th April 2014) is definitely worth a visit if you get the chance.

Code Breaker – Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy at The V&A

Mathematician, philosopher, inventor, dreamer, code breaker – Alan Turing was all of these things and more.  He was at the forefront of the development of a brand new technology, one that would transform the 20th century and has now become so intertwined with people’s everyday lives, it is hard to imagine a world without it.  I am, of course, talking about the computer.

Once just a term to denote someone who ‘computes’ numbers, the term computer was then applied to mechanical computing machines, but has now come to mean so much more.

Before Alan Turing’s pioneering work in the 1940’s and 50’s there were a few job specific computers – the perfect example being bombsight equipment used on aircraft during the second world war, which calculated the time to drop a bomb dependant on the input of specific data such as wind speed, distance from target and height of the aircraft.  Turing envisioned developing a single computer which was not restricted to one function, but could be used as a universal problem solving device and even think for itself.  He proposed his theories in a mathematics paper written in 1936, and even today we are still grappling with the scope of his ideas.

What was a theory in 1936 was set on the road to reality by the coming of the second world war and the desperate need to intercept Nazi radio messages sent between command stations and the U-boats in the Atlantic via the Enigma encryption machines.  As Great Britain stood alone against the aggressor she was gradually being strangulated, cut off from food and fuel by the devastating U-boat attacks on supply ships traversing the Atlantic.  A solution had to be found, a way to read those messages before their commands were implemented, or it would have been the end of democracy in the West.

Our salvation came in two parts – one part through mathematical genius, the other by sheer luck.  The luck came with the capture of a U-boat containing an undamaged Enigma machine and it’s all important cypher book.  The genius was Alan Turing.  He designed a electro-mechanical decryption device called a ‘bombe’ (which was later refined by Gordon Welchman).  It was a significant development from a Polish device called a ‘bomba kryptologiczna’ or a ‘cryptologic bomb’ and was capable of searching though a vast amount of combinations, effectively doing the job of hundreds of workers with vastly more precision.  Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire was the base for the decoding operation, but due to their importance to the war effort, around two hundred machines were built and some were placed at out-stations (Adstock, Gayhurst, Wavendon, Stanmore and Eastcote) in case of bombing.  All the bombe’s were destroyed after the war but a working version has been reconstructed at Bletchley Park – the exhibition had a single drum on display.

After the war he returned to his computer theories and was asked to help develop a computer for the National Physical Laboratory (as it says on their website:- “NPL is the UK’s National Measurement Institute, and is a world-leading centre of excellence in developing and applying the most accurate measurement standards, science and technology available”; and here is an interesting list of some of the science carried out since it’s founding in 1900:- History of NPL).

Alan Turing wrote the specification for the first universal computer in 1945, but left the project through frustration in 1948 due to persistent delays and changes in the project’s direction.  The computer, which was called the Automatic Computing Engine (or ACE) was finished in 1950 without him.  It was used for many years by external customers in need of its computing power and even became refered to as Turing’s ‘electronic brain’.  The power of the ACE was put to effective use to assist in calculations for the crash investigators when trying to find the cause of the Comet failures – a section of the fuselage recovered from he bed of the Mediterranean Sea and sent to Farnborough Royal Aircraft Establishment for investigation, was on display.  The ACE was also among a number of computers used to assist Dorothy Hodgkin’s work on finding the molecular structure of insulin and vitamins.  The computer was truly becoming ‘Universal’.

It seems a common thread through human history that people with great talents or skills are often victimised by the society they are contributing towards – Alan Turing was homosexual and in the 40’s and 50’s this was illegal and seen as a perversion which needed to be cured.  Charged with gross indecency in 1952 Alan Turing opted for injections of estrogen instead of a jail sentence (it was thought to be a way of controlling male sexual desires).  By 1954 he was dead.

After an autopsy the verdict for the cause of death was given as Suicide – cyanide was found in the kitchen and a half eaten apple was found by his bed.  Recently this explanation has been questioned – he had stopped taking the estrogen a year previously and had not been excessively depressed by the sentence, in fact he had been making plans for things to do when he returned to work after his holiday weekend.  He did not leave a suicide note and he often ate an apple before going to bed, which he regularly left unfinished (the apple was not tested for cyanide).  He had been using potassium cyanide to dissolve gold in a tiny spare room and it is suggested that his death was more consistent with inhalation than ingestion – in other words, it was probably an unfortunate accident rather than an intended act.

Due to the sensitivity of the material and the top-secret nature of much of the work he carried out, it has only been since the 1970’s that his significant contribution during the war, and that of the staff of Bletchley Park, has been publicly known – it’s wasn’t until the 1970’s that the Science Museum was the first to put an Enigma machine on display anywhere in the world.  It has been even more recently (2009) that the British government has officially apologised for his conviction and treatment for homosexuality.

As for the exhibition, I found the exhibits interesting and Alan Turing is a fascinating and complex character, but it felt a little simplistic as a whole, patchy and overall far too small for such an important figure in the development of computing.  His influence is still celebrated today with the Turing Prize, which has been awarded annually since 1966 for significant contributions to the advancement of computing and is widely regarded as the computing equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

I assume that due to the inherent complexity of much of his work, a more in-depth exhibition was not possible and may have lost the impact of his theories and achievements.  It is fascinating to think that it was only a few years ago the last of his papers were released because the ideas they contained were still classed as sensitive to national security over fifty years after his death.  Although I would definitely recommend you visit this exhibition (and the excellent Science Museum as a whole) I do feel it could have delved a little deeper – the man deserves all the recognition he has only now posthumously received.

The Bruce Lacey Experience at The Camden Arts Centre

And what an experience!

I had come across the name Bruce Lacey through the Fairport Convention 7″ single ‘Mr Lacey’ from their ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’ LP.  It has whirring mechanical sounds in the background and all I knew of him was that he made mechanical humanoid contraptions in the 60’s.  I had no idea that he was still active, now well into his 80’s, and had lived a wild and varied life of sheer and utter lunacy.

The exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre traces the life and work of a true eccentric.  It is divided into three rooms and three aspects of the life and work of Bruce Lacey.  The first room is centred on his childhood (hugely significant, as he never really grew up) and feature some of his toys (he seems to have always been a compulsive hoarder, with a fascination for aircraft), fancy dress costumes from the many parties his parents put on, right up to a range of his paintings from art college.

He was born in London and experienced the Blitz first hand – in fact there is a wrecked model fighter plane in the exhibition which was damaged by a real V2 rocket which landed near his home.  After the war he was conscripted and trained as an electrical engineer in the Navy which led to him being hospitalised with Tuberculosis in the late 1940’s.

In hospital he began drawing the ward and when he left he went to art college and began painting and performing – it wasn’t until he came across the term Performance Artist that the confusion over whether to be an artist or a performer (like the music hall acts he’d seen regularly with his father while growing up) was finally resolved.

The second gallery was filled with posters of performances, fairs, music, happenings and rituals.  He was a long time collaborator with The Alberts, an absurdist Trad. Jazz band similar to the Bonzo Dog Band, minus a hit single (they did release one single ‘The Morse Code Melody’, but I don’t believe it charted).  The Alberts actually prefigured and partly inspired Viv Stanshall to form the Bonzo Dog Band.  Often credited as The Alberts with Professor Bruce Lacey, their performances were often billed as An Evening Of British Rubbish and making jibes at colonialism and the British view, as was common in the comedy of the time.

In a small room off the second gallery (which may have been a blocked off corridor of the old Victorian library building where the Camden Arts Centre is based) was projected a film all about Bruce Lacey and his work/life – I say life/work because much of his work involved just being Bruce Lacey.  For instance – The Lacey’s At Home (an installation at the Serpentine Gallery in 1972) involved the whole family doing ordinary things in an ordinary room, visible to the public through a missing wall.  Another example is The Lacey Rituals (1973) where he filmed his family doing ordinary, everyday things like shaving, eating and washing.  By nature they are very voyeuristic, yet it is fascinating to see how someone so ‘off-the-wall’ lived their life – I was struck by the clutter strewn about the home (as I said previously he is an inveterate hoarder of quirky, interesting things).  In the film he spoke about his life and the different stages of his development as an artist, the things which influenced and stuck with him.  At one point he said something which really struck me because I knew exactly what he meant and had been aware of it for some time – he hated pop music because it was too perfect, the guitars were perfectly in tune and balanced with everything else, the vocals were immaculate and fitted perfectly with the rhythm track – so much so that it was boring, it had no interest.  Perfect things need shaking up, setting off kilter, otherwise it’s just bland and meaningless.  This chimes perfectly with my theory that although perfection should generally be aimed for in art, if it is achieved it becomes worthless and dull.

In 1967 Bruce Lacey and his wife at the time, Jill Bruce, came upon Silbury Hill which had a revelatory effect on them both but which laid dormant until 1976 when they felt the technological assemblages and robotics seemed redundant and Mother Earth far more important in their lives.  The third gallery began with artifacts from his Paganistic performance/rituals/rites which he regularly performed at the Albion Fairs in East Anglia among other paces and which drew on the mysticism surrounding Ley lines, stone circles and the zodiac.  There was also a fascinating glass sphere, mounted  on a wooden frame which acted as a lens and traced the trajectory of the sun by burning a line on paper.  there was also huge hippy-style paintings on the walls.

The other main part of the third gallery presented a number of his automaton and mechanical assemblages which are very Dada-esque.  These included R.O.S.A.B.O.S.O.M. or Radio Operated Simulated Actress Battery Or Standby Operated Mains (1965), which went on to win the Alternative Miss World competition in 1985’s and was also his best man at one of his marriages.  Hanging from the ceiling in this gallery was the mock-space suit he wore for a performance and film of The British Landing on the Moon (1969) where he lays out a blanket, arranges gnomes and has a picnic on the lunar surface.

This exhibition really brought home to me the dichotomy of the whole 60’s and 70’s era – while we were involved in the space race, reaching out into the unknown and using the cutting edge of technology, there was also a mass return to the earth, to the countryside and folk preoccupations, a greater awareness of nature and our part in the wider world.  Why were they both so strong at this time?  Were they alternate reactions and ways of comprehending our stage in the industrial, or emerging post-industrial, revolution process, or was it mere coincidence?

Involved with the post-Goons work of Peter Sellars, Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine, providing ideas and props for early TV comedy shows including ‘The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d’, ‘It’s A Square World’, ‘Son of Fred’, and ‘It’s The Cathode-Ray Tube Show’.  He was also George Harrison’s gardener in Help! and featured in early films by Ken Russel and Richard Lester.

Always on the edge of being ‘know’ Bruce Lacey has spent his life (a full 65 years) being the perennial outsider, doing his own thing, revelling in the counterculture yet wanting everyone to join in – persuading people not to lose sight of their imagination and their inner-child.

Links worth a look:-

Exhibition video

BFI Trailer for The Bruce Lacey Rituals DVD

Bruce Lacey Experience film teaser

The Bruce Lacey Experience was on at The Camden Arts Centre between 7 July 2012 – 16 September 2012.  It will tour to The Exchange in Penzance in late September 2012.  This exhibition coincides with the release of The Lacey Rituals: Films by Bruce Lacey and Friends, a DVD of restored films by the BFI, including the Bruce Lacey Experience documentary.

Oramics to Electronica at The Science Museum, London

I have long been fascinated by electronic music – not the repetitious, beat reliant, night-club screamers, that make my eye brows rise in disbelief at the predictability and obviousness of the music created – but the pioneering years from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, when synthesised sounds were exciting and exploratory, strange and often a little difficult on the ear.  It was a time when science, mathematics and art combined their respective strengths and worked together like frontiersmen to create sounds and music that had never been heard before.

Oramics to Electronica – Revealing Histories of Electronic Music is curated by a group of people, in collaboration with the Science Museum, who had something to do with the founding of electronic music or are involved in the current creation of it.  For instance, Dr. Peter Zinovieff (one of the founders of EMS (Electronic Music Studio)) was on the curating team as was Dick Mills, Brian Hodgeson and Steve Marshall who all worked in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, along with younger musicians, writers and producers.

There were of course much earlier electronic musical instruments than the ones on display here, and there are many strands that the exhibition could have taken, but it wasn’t until the 1950’s and 60’s that things really started to take off in terms of the brave new world of electronic sound.

Before what we now regard as synthesisers existed, original non-traditional sounds were generally created by manipulating recordings on tape, and the history of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is normally seen in two eras – pre- and post-synthesiser.  These range from 1958 (when it was established by Daphne Oram) to 1970 (when they acquired their first commercial synthesiser, the EMS VCS3) and 1970 to 1998 (when it was disbanded).  I had of course heard of Delia Derbyshire who is well-known for arranging Ron Grainer’s theme for a new television series called Dr Who, I also knew a few other names, but strangely had not picked up on Daphne Oram’s before this exhibition.  With the help of Desmond Briscoe she pressured the BBC into setting up an electronic music department for creating interesting effects and music for TV and radio, but left the BBC shortly after to establish her own recording studio in Kent and to start work (with the help of Graham Wrench) on the device that this exhibition is centred around, the Oramics machine.

Encased in a large glass case the Oramics machine was a continually evolving contraption which took the idea of an oscilloscope wave pattern in reverse – rather than the sound drawing the wave on a screen, the operator would draw a wave onto a slide and manipulate its components (volume, pitch, reverb and vibrato) by again drawing on blank 35mm film strips.  It had no traditional interface, such as a keyboard or strings, the sound was purely manipulated graphically.  The output sound could then be either amplified or recorded for further manipulation.  As an exhibit it has the pull and fascination that comes with once pioneering but now redundant technology, it inspires wonder at the lengths which people went to in an attempt to create something which was, at the time, quite literally out of this world.  About half a century later similar results could quite easily be achieved on a home computer, but this does not detract from the brilliance and importance of the original equipment and it is great to see that this is being recognised and preserved (apparently the Oramics machine was recovered from a barn in quite a poor state by Dr Mick Grierson, Director of The Daphne Oram Collection).

The Oramics to Electronica Exhibition includes a wide range of electronic music making items (housed in what look like Victorian display cabinets) from the egg slicer and lamp shade of the early Radiophonic Workshop days to an example of the current trend for lo-fi circuit bending of hobbyists and fringe musicians (represented by an altered Speak and Spell toy).  I believe many of these items were taken from the Science Museum’s storage and included the Fairlight CMI which was a commercially available and widely used (but extremely expensive) digital version of the Oramics machine designed and build in Australia from 1979 (although I don’t believe the Australian designers had any knowledge of Daphne’s creation).  There is the hardware, which includs the EMS VCS3 (and the portable Synthi-A version – a synth in a briefcase) but there was also some software including Koan (development started in 1990 and was commercially released in 1994) which uses a home computer to generate its own unique music (Brian Eno used it for an album called Generative Music 1 (1996)).

Before I found the exhibition I wandered round the Science Museum, something I hadn’t done since I was at school, and I found it fascinating – I tend to gravitate towards the Victoria & Albert Museum (and it is significantly quieter without all the kids running around!) but the Science Museum is another of London’s truly great institutions.  I had just come from the British Design Exhibition at the V&A, which cost £12, to see a supposedly  15 minute free exhibition (although I’ve no idea how long I was there!) and I thought it was a far more satisfying experience (in part due to my excited re-discovery of the museum as a whole).  the exhibition did not seem to have a particular structure and there are many other stories of electronic music which were not touched on (understandable in such a small space), but the exhibits that were included had fascinating stories of their own – it was great to see prominence given to an aspect of music which seems to be largely ignored or forgotten about.

If you are at all considering having a look, or have the vaguest interest in electronic music or technology in general (there’s plenty in the museum to satisfy your curiosity!) then do go – you only have until December 2012!

By the way there is another interesting free exhibition opposite the Oramics display all about Alchemy (Signs, Symbols, Secrets: An Illustrated Guide To Alchemy) – I’m not sure if the similarity of Alchemy (using science and art to turn one thing into another) to electronic music (using science and art to create something out of nothing) was realised by the curators, but it certainly works well as a companion exhibition.

British Design 1948 – 2012 Exhibition at The V&A

The huge number and scope of free to enter museums in London is like no other city on earth.  To name just three, each beside the other, is enough to cause the envy of any other capital city – the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.  I haven’t been inside the Natural history Museum since I was a child – I would love to have another look, but haven’t had the opportunity because of the ridiculous length of the queues even in the rain (as it was last weekend).  As for the Science Museum, I had partially forgotten about it and hadn’t been inside for a proper look for many years (I did pop in a few years ago for a free exhibit but only had time to rush in and out unfortunately) – but more of that museum in another post.  The V&A is by far the museum I know the best and I have seen many exhibitions there over the years, yet I feel I know parts of it very well and still feel there is much more I’ve neglected simply due to the sheer size of the place.

British Design 1948 – 2012 Innovation In The Modern Age is the latest large-scale exhibition at the V&A.  The start date of the exhibition is a bit contrived – it is the year of the last London Olympics (and first post war one) yet there is very little in the exhibition which refers to it (one-third of one mural if I remember correctly).  There is quite a nice amount on the re-built Coventry Cathedral but the exhibition doesn’t really get going until the early 50’s with the Festival of Britain (which has become the trendy mid-century modern touchstone for the UK) and the Queen’s Coronation.  The Coronation would have been a much better starting point in this Diamond Jubilee year.  It would have missed out on the Festival of Britain section (resulting in many a raised eyebrow and scoffing derrision), but much of what was on display about the Festival was not particularly revelatory and there was certainly nothing which has not been seen before.

This dichotomy of Tradition and Modernity was the subject of the first section of the exhibition.  It included a look at the post war New Towns and how they evolved from the Victorian idea of the Garden City to become the playthings of Le Corbusier worshiping architects and town planners.  There was also a mention of Denys Lasdun’s campus at the University of East Anglia (on the far wall of the photograph) and the boom in new school buildings, the work of the Design Research Unit’s organisation and simplification of traffic signage, the country house style and Laura Ashley, and the modernisation of the home throughout the 50’s and 60’s, including the influence of Conran’s Habitat stores.

The next section was on Subversion.  This traced the rise of the anti-establishment from being essentially the post war rebellion of youth and the rise of the teenager, to the influence of art students on pop culture in terms of fashion, photography, magazines, record covers, films and journalism.  It did manage to point out that swinging London in the 60’s was a very small enclave and that the effects did not really reach the general population until well into the 70’s.  The subversion of gender stereotypes were well represented by the stage costumes of Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Brian Ferry and Brian Eno (pictured below from his Roxy Music days).

* As an aside – Brian Eno (who came up with the term Ambient Music) played an EMS VSC3 synthesiser when in Roxy Music and a VCS3 was on display at the Science Museum exhibition on early electronic music, as was some of the equipment from the BBC Radiophonic workshop.  The interlude music before and between acts at the Comus gig happened to be early electronic music composed by members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop!  How strange that the day should have such unintended musical connections.

The subversion section continued with Punk and fashion, graphic design and the rise of lifestyle magazines in the 80’s (The Face and i-D for instance), right up to Damian Hirst and Matthew Freud’s short-lived Pharmacy restaurant (1998-2003).  A section of which was reconstructed, including the glass cabinets full of medicinal packaging and the Asprin-like stools at the tables.

The last section of the exhibition was to do with Innovation and Creativity and covered anything from the Concord (a joint Anglo-French project) to Sinclair computers, architecture including Lloyd’s of London and the stunning Falkirk Boat Lift (pictured).  It also charted the decline of our manufacturing and heavy industries and the grwoth of technological and laboratory based companies.  It also suggested that new localised, small-scale, specialised and ecologically minded industries have started to become a possible future alternative to our redundant manufacturing base – which is a nice idea, but I doubt realistic.

Although there was a vast range of items on display, the fact that the exhibition covered such a wide scope of design and manufacturing made it feel a bit thin and lacking in substance.  It suffered the same fate as the Royal Academy exhibition ‘Building The Revolution’ which focused on Modernist architectural experiments in Russia between 1915 and 1935 (before Modernism in all it’s forms was sidelined and superseded by the hypocrisy of Socialist Realism).  The Royal Academy exhibition largely consisted of old and new photographs of Modernist buildings, with a few Rodchenko and Popova paintings recycled from previous exhibitions thrown in.  Unfortunately there was no depth of analysis or any attempt to make links with wider social or cultural issues.  It turned what could have been an interesting look at how designers tried to create a new Communist and communal Russia after the Revolution, into cold finger-pointing – look at these funny old buildings the Soviets built and how neglected they are now!  It would have been far more interesting if the exhibition investigated how the architecture promoted communist ideas. Were they designed with communal working and living in mind, and if so, how did they hope to turn ideology into bricks, mortar and concrete – did they achieve this and were they successful?

It was interesting to see the huge range of exhibits on display, but a number of times while wandering round the exhibition of British Design I heard myself saying “I had one of those!” or “I remember that!” – combining that with its huge scope and superficial look at design in general, I felt it gave the exhibition an ultimately unsatisfying sense of ‘been there, done that’.