I went down to London on for a training course held in the Institute of Mining, Minerals and Metals, one street back from Pall Mall. A crisp, sunny autumn day. I took a photocopy of the chapter from James M. Bone’s London Perambulator (1925) which describes the club streets and took a walk during the lunch break, wandering along Pall Mall as far as St. James’s Palace (grey clad soldiers with bayonets on their assault rifles doing funny shuffling moves like a long slow military dance – you could stick an ink rubber in between their noses and upper lips and it would stay there, like a toothbrush moustache) and the Athenaeum, with its big golden Minerva. You can see the august folk, or rather their bald or snowy white heads, through the windows of the clubs. I tried to identify some of the places Bone describes: Berry’s the wine merchant’s and Lock’s the hatters are still there, as well as most of the clubs, the RAC and the house built on the site of Nell Gwyn’s house (marked with a blue plaque. Surely it is on the south rather than the north side of the street, as Bone has it?). The “Dutch-looking house, old red brick and stone dressings and its caryatided porch” had scaffolding all over its façade and taxis screamed up the one way system like scalded black hounds.
Afterwards, I had time to catch some of the exhibitions on Cork Street. As usual, I had to walk up and down the street a couple of times, peering anxiously in through the windows (but not even really feeling comfortable doing that) until I plucked up the courage to step into one of the galleries, feeling a total pleb in my cheap clothes. Looking at art in the context of all that luxury (Saville Row, the Burlington Arcade) is always an interesting lesson.
Saw Paul Slater, who used to be (or still is) an illustrator. Faux-early-to-mid-20th century á la Boys’ Own annuals. Surreal humour. Edwardian gent types in absurd spherical metal suits kicking at one another; a cricketer leaps to hit the ball and is shot through with arrows; a stirling military fellow plays stirring tunes on a kind of grand piano-cum-tank which ploughs over a trench containing a startled German on some First World War battlefield; weird Magritte-esque balloon-houses hover over an English heath complete with hearty walkers. Various characters had very odd protuberances coming out from where their bottoms were, but yet contained in their immaculately tailored clothes. I appreciated the offbeat humour, but they felt to me (perhaps having just walked up Jermyn Street and the Burlington Arcade in my cheap mac) like luxury products.
Pia Fries at Bernard Jacobson. Huge and pristine white canvasses with paint thickly extruded and smeared onto them. Photographic images of paint were screen printed onto the canvass, complete with crosshairs (she studied under Gerhard Richter). I found them cold, detached and clinical. Despite the liberal use of paint and the potential for it to be messy and hearty, the materials are tightly controlled and immaculately presented (no trace of struggle or development). Not a single smear of paint out of place. They didn’t even smell of oil (despite being dated 2007 and unlike the Paul Slaters).
Len Tabner. I liked these the best of all. Big landscapes on paper in mixed media (mostly watercolour, acrylic and oil or soft pastels, by the look of it). Exciting, vibrant and alive. He has painted places I have photographed and know: Boulby Cliff from Redcar and the East Coast. Lindisfarne, Sandsend, Bamburgh Castle and Glen Coe. There was a photo of him painting out of doors, in front of his Landrover. I think I liked them because they are about an engagement with something (landscape and the elements) in a way that is no longer fashionable. They are closer to Turner than to other contemporary work (Tabner is an older artist).
Later, I noticed that the stairs in Waterstones in Piccadilly are made of the same kind of strange pitted marble as the Bucharest Metro. I imagined them featuring in the plot of a Cold War spy novel, perhaps involving tiny notes or micro dots concealed in the crevices.