Rex’s Restaurant

The refurbished Tate Britain reopened this week, including the Rex Whistler restaurant, the walls of which are lined with Rex Whistler’s painting The Pursuit of Rare Meats.

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Here’s a brochure, dating from some point mid-century, which explains the painting. The story was a collaboration with the novelist Edith Olivier.

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An expedition leaves the ducal palace of Epicurania, which includes the Crown Prince Etienne and Princess Claudia, led by the son of an impoverised Polish nobleman on a bicycle (a character depicted as Rex Whistler). They travel through a typically Whistler-ish Arcadian landscape, where his dark humour is often at work: “Meanwhile, a disaster occurs upstream where, due to his excitement at seeing a balloon overhead, a small boy falls into the river and is drowned”.

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The Pursuit of Rare Meats ends with the news that, “A sad result of the expedition was the death of the dowager duchess, who took too keen an interest for her age in sampling the rare meats collected”.

Post-war wilderness, 1950

The World My Wilderness

A view of St Paul’s through wasteland, cover artwork published in 1950 for Rose Macaulay’s story of a girl who is sent to live in London after years in occupied France (jacket design by Barbara Jones). I’ve yet to read it. The inside wrap reads:

“London and the ordered formality of English life seemed to her after the wild maquis society of France more than strange, repellent even, a totally unintelligible confusion. She was bewildered, not merely by the ordinary rules of what is called civilised life, but also by the ambiguity of her personal relationships within that framework… the only escape from it she found in a real but fantastic world which she created for herself in the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s, which became her physical and spiritual home.”

Here’s an image from 2013.

Hemmed in 7

Off to Ambrosia with Billy Liar

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Tom Courtenay as Billy Liar (1963)

Is Billy Liar really 50 years old? It’s one of the key sixties films catching Britain at a time of transition, mirrored by Billy’s dreams of escape from small town doldrums to something more ‘swinging’. In the early 1990s there was a wonderful BBC weekly retrospective of the era, with all the key films beautifully introduced and the icons interviewed.

Julie Christie and Tom Courtenay

Julie Christie and Tom Courtenay, 1964

Back then you could still wander London and feel the spirit/myth of the locations (there was a kind of indie ’90s is 60s upside down’ thing at the time). The ephemera had lived on in 1980s youth with The Smiths and their legendary sleeve artwork and videos; I remember my oldest brother bringing home the records which introduced Terence Stamp, Rita Tushingham, Pat Phoenix, Yootha Joyce, Alain Delon, Viv Nicolson, The Family Way – a long line of the spirits of an age.

The Smiths Covers

I was wondering to someone about the unselfconscious types who in my childhood bicycled everywhere in wing-framed glasses and tweed overcoats with faces ‘washed bright with carbolic soap’ (a phrase I got from my grandma). Where did they go? It seemed every second of their lives was spent doing quiet practical things. They didn’t need excitement. I thought it was punk that changed things. I was corrected – of course it was the sixties (I was too young to remember: a moment to cherish).

And now in the 21st century it seems people want these culturally marginalised types back, or at least to know they are there in the background, unfazed by the digital age. We even have lots of cake-making, village fete TV. The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ has backfired and in Brand Britain for tourists today it has no hint of irony, just as John Lydon now advertises butter.

This clip from Billy Liar is pure perfection in articulating a yearning for ‘something more’. It’s about the stuff that fuels the best bands, and a particular type of indie pop where edited if not imaginary worlds are held fleetingly in bubbles. Here too is Julie Christie in one of her earliest roles, and probably quite revolutionary in not being squashed into a perfectly made-up fifties ideal. The Yorkshire (Bradford) setting is familiar from my own family and I defy anyone not to want to be on that 12.05 train in 1963.

Elsewhere on WordPress I found this essay The Romance of Grime which celebrates and pinpoints the spirit of the British kitchen sink drama and is well worth a read.

Gilt in the City on a winter afternoon

London, a freezing weekday afternoon walking from Spitalfields. We’re looking for churches, and a synagogue, which we picked from a handbook. Whitechapel Gallery beckons on the way and we go for a look. I’ve no idea what’s on, but it turns out the theme is Urban Nature, which is fairly apt. Only 24 hours in London but fate assumes we’re missing trees and moorland already.

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Whitechapel Gallery, Installation View. Photo: David Parry/PA Wire

Giuseppe Penone has found a tree, cast it in bronze, gilded the interior and cut it into pieces so we can gaze through the hollow trunk that once rose up and away and into the sky. It’s called Space of Light, or more fluidly, Spazio di Luce.

I’m not thinking of trees, but concrete cylinders, because a few days ago I saw a road trip movie where the characters stowed away inside one on the way to Spain. But then today I’m the country mouse and so perhaps the impact is working in reverse. Are Londoners sensing the forest?

It’s great to be in the city after a stretch in the tiniest villages: I need the antidote, keen to fill the mental landscape with tube trains, cranes and artificial light. It’s a bit like Lucozade, which as a child I would have drunk regularly except it was only allowed when you had a cold.

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Whitechapel Gallery, Installation View. Photo: David Parry/PA Wire

Rise trees of the wood, of the forest… rise trees of the orchards, of the avenues, of the gardens, of the parks, rise from the wood that you have formed, take us back to the memory of your lives, tell us about the events, the seasons, the contacts of your existence. Take us back to the woodland, the darkness, the shadow, the scent of the undergrowth, the wonder of the cathedral that is born in the wood land.

Text by Giuseppe Penone writing in 1979, cut and pasted from Wikipedia

There’s a display about Rovesciare I propri occhi (To reverse one’s eyes) which involved the artist wearing mirrored contact lenses and exploring the countryside by touch. His quote alongside connects trees reaching for light with the retina capturing images with light. It suggests we share flesh and fibre with trees, our gaze questing like tree limbs and branches for the sun.

It’s reminding me of the rental DVD that hung around for weeks because the unappetising description was ‘astronomers search the skies for stars while a group of women search for body parts in the desert nearby’. Nostalgia for the Light was actually beautiful and meditative and mind-expanding: astronomers experiencing stars as history – via light years – are linked with a harrowing archaeology of Pinochet’s regime in Chile, to explore the past and what really constitutes our now and future.

I’m not sure if there’s any genuine connection, but all these ways of thinking about light feel like pieces of a jigsaw which would probably be worth the effort… that our history is carried in the light is a fantastically poetic concept.

The sky outside is pewter grey and glacially cold. Looking up I see a crow – all very Gormenghast – and the building is gilded with leaves (by Rachel Whiteread). It’s a hyperreal, gothic moment, compounded seconds later by a White Hart nestling in the greenwood of a pub sign alongside the sunset glow of Burger King signage.

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The synagogue is closed, as are a couple of churches. The past is close at hand, glimpsed through rails, definitely asleep. Construction is everywhere: plate glass moves vertically at a stately pace and the new structures expose their vital organs, sometimes messily.

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The trees opposite one church are gruesome – stunted and blackened, purest 21st century gothic (above). But in the gleaming hermetically-sealed paneling there are secret latches…

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So sudden, it’s a hallucination. I’m reminded of a series called The Georgian House from the 1970s, in which a servant boy was transported from 18th century Bristol to the future, only to rush out in shock and headlong into the traffic.

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We’re forced to look upwards and pointed to a gilded heaven. But this is not an instruction from the past: it is everywhere, in the pneumatic drilling on the air and the visions through the window.

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Like the gilded tree, this poor creature is felled and hemmed in too…

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And in case we might linger too long, a glance up at the wall urges us to make much of time…

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With all the relentless development outside, you could feel pity for poor besieged churches. Hemmed in like this precious table…

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Be at rest: the table is preserved. No-one has put anything on it or under it – like these caskets of history, these places of worship we’re standing in. The power of God can resist building directly on even if it can’t manage the doorstep outside.

But for a moment I see little difference between inside and out, past and present. Perhaps this isn’t a benign oasis. It’s all power and awe. Look up, look up. These ancient buildings are not besieged – they are bulwarks of power, just like the monoliths in the financial heart of the City of London. They’ve both met head on and neither will budge.

Meanwhile, someone else who wouldn’t budge looks on…

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Charles I was my favourite King. Here he’s restored, airbrushed, gilded, and the focus for another slightly odd cult. What with Richard III, there seem to be opportunities these days in marketing maligned monarchs as celebrities.

Back home I read that Rachel Whiteread’s decoration of Whitechapel Gallery is echoing “London’s rooftop repertoire of gilded angels, heraldic animals and crests”. Looking back on the photos, there’s gilding in most of them. A country mouse might think London’s really paved with gold.