Monday, August 15, 2011

Dramatic Interventions

Last month I joined a trip to Warwickshire organised by the Friends of Stroud District Museum. The first stop was Compton Verney, a country house in a Capability Brown landscape and since mediæval times the ancestral pile of the Lords Willoughby de Broke. Until 1921. Years of emptiness and neglect followed before the estate was rescued by Sir Peter Moores, of the Littlewoods empire. His vision was to create an art gallery, somewhere central, in a rural setting. The result is a good use for the house, albeit with the obligatory Modernist carbuncle added on one side, though the collection inevitably feels thrown together by a quick dash round the auction rooms to pick up whatever good stuff happened to be for sale.

Many of the galleries were shut for an event, so I cannot say whether the idea works or not. One group of galleries that certainly does is devoted to folk art, mostly British, mostly 18th and 19th centuries. There are wonderfully naïve paintings of people, street scenes and prize animals, examples of quilting, and of those three-dimensional painted wooden signs that would hang outside inns and shops in a less literate age to denote the name or the trade carried on.

One of two temporary exhibitions was devoted to Stanley Spencer. The most striking contrast in Spencer’s paintings is always between the landscapes and those who sometimes inhabit them. Buildings and gardens are observed in minute detail, every shadow and reflection captured perfectly. Into these scenes, Spencer’s people and animals intrude like balloons, unbelievably comic characters that also form the inspiration for Beryl Cook’s fat ladies (as she herself acknowledged). Their transience seems magnified by the style: the only question is whether they will burst first or float away.

The second exhibition explored Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s work in the area, remodelling the landscape for a galaxy of aristocratic patrons. Or, more precisely, to quote the title, it explored his work in ‘Middle England’. Not quite Mercia but a step up from the Midlands, presumably in an attempt to appeal to the international audience.

With other galleries closed, I was lucky enough largely to have missed what was billed as a series of artistic ‘interventions’, where ‘artists’ dress up or reposition others’ works to create new ones in a bid to be ‘provocative’ and ‘surprising’. It sounds insufferably like a bunch of satirical comedians whose fount of material is drying up, leaving only giggles and sniggers to keep the audience awake until the curtain comes down. Most folk would probably call it stretching a point at best, pointless vandalism at worst, but it does seem to be a coming trend. All the more reason to shut down the arts business altogether and get these narcissistic misfits to try doing a real job.

The other stop on the tour was another intervention, architectural this time. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon is an inter-war classic, the work of Elisabeth Scott, cousin of the Scott who designed the red telephone kiosk. During the Second World War, plans were made to evacuate Parliament to Stratford in the event of invasion, the theatre housing debates and nearby Charlecote earmarked as accommodation for Mr Speaker.

The big problem with Scott’s design was that it never worked as a theatre. The acoustics were awful and attempts to cram in extra seating made it more and more uncomfortable. I sat through Coriolanus in 1981 and while I remember little of the play I do remember the experience of sitting with my knees under my chin gazing down at some tiny figures on a stage badly obscured by the proscenium arch.

At last the Scott auditorium has been scooped out and replaced by one that works. It has been done with great respect for the historic building, though patched brickwork is patched brickwork and little can conceal the fact. The new observation tower, like a long neck paying homage to the Swan of Avon, is an inspired touch. The building’s complex history is best viewed from the other side, where neo-Gothic, Art Deco, Postmodernism or the latest dash of Brick Expressionism all vie for attention. It would have been simpler to demolish and start again. Much simpler. But instead Stratford has created a textbook example of conservation in practice, showing how to ‘preserve the best and improve the rest’. Look and learn.

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