Talking Furniture: what Art Nouveau tells us about the French

I’ve just spent the last few months in 1890s France (or at least in the library studying 1890s France, for the purposes of an MA). This is a period more glamorously known as the fin-de-siècle, a generic French term which has stuck to this particular ‘end of the century’, perhaps because the turn from the 19th to the 20th century saw such momentous change, and Paris was its artistic hub. The fin-de-siècle has a very particular allure in my opinion: close enough in time and technology to be very well-documented, but long enough ago to be a startlingly different place. Socially: modern and medieval in equal measure. And indisputably a time of grand visions the like of which we’ll never see again. It was also an interesting moment in the history of industrialisation.

I was reading about design – and the dominant movement at that time of art nouveau – and I was struck by the loaded ways in which objects were described by contemporary critics. People got really upset (or ecstatic) about the design of things as (seemingly) insignificant as chairs and wallpaper. Interior design was such a matter of national significance that a mainstream journalist was heard to say that one particular art nouveau room ‘reeked of the vicious Englishman, the morphine-addicted jewess, or the crafty Belgian.’ It’s hard to imagine anyone describing design in such xenophobically charged terms nowadays – or even caring that much.

Although it’s not mentioned in the above quote, actually the most problematic nation for France at this point was Germany. Not because of what came later, but because of what had just happened. Germany had wiped the floor with France both militarily and economically in the late nineteenth century, and their population was growing alarmingly fast, all of which came as a rather unpleasant surprise to France. And it led to all sorts of German-centred neuroses: around power, health, virility, and the question of how and with what France could still assert its superiority in some way.

I think the answer for the French was art nouveau. For hundreds of years they had been used to seeing themselves as global ‘tastemakers’, and the one asset they could still flaunt over Germany was their general cultural refinement. The art nouveau design movement flowered all over Europe, and its most sophisticated practitioners were probably actually in Belgium. But the country it really left its mark on was France: in Paris (think of those quintessentially Parisian metro stops). The identity of Paris is bound to the fin-de-siècle period – it’s what we all think of when we romanticise it – partly because art nouveau became the hook on which the French hung their national identity at a critical moment in their history: the solidification of the Third Republic. And if you look into French art nouveau this way, through the lens of a German-centred inferiority complex – you discover some quite striking things.

They were obsessed with the idea of French ‘grace, charm, and elegance’ as being innate national characteristics. This was partly in opposition to what they saw as being the hyper-masculine, heavy, Germanic style, and anything perceived as being ‘heavy’ in this period gets very short shrift from French critics. But they were also drawing here on the house style of Marie Antoinette, ‘Rococo’, which, for the French Republic (ironically), was their only available shorthand for power and glory. In order to assert their position as artistically superior they fall back on a time when they actually were: when the French court set the trends that the rest of the world followed.

Critics gloried in the refinement and femininity of French design (and for some odd linguistic reason the language is even more markedly feminine in French than in English). But there were downsides to the Rococo being a feminine style, especially in the context of the national embarrassments of military defeat and economic stagnation which led to a major crisis of masculinity. So they also made sure to comment on the ‘strength’ and ‘vigour’ of French art nouveau. This leads to some quite unusual design statements, where an ode to the grace, elegance and lightness of an armoire will be followed by the reassurance that ‘underneath these forms are muscles.’

They were preoccupied with health and fitness. This was partly a genuine reaction to the increasingly sedentary lives of the people of an industrialised nation: this is when we see the rise of the first bodybuilding magazines. But it was also quite common at the time for writers to use the body as a metaphor for the country. A critic called Hippolyte Taine claimed that their recent fall from power revealed that the French body was truly sick. So the worst criticism that connoisseurs can level at a designer is that of producing ‘unhealthy’ forms. They also liked to read their political ideals into their furniture, which they believed were qualities like ‘reason, logic, moderation’, qualities they definitely did not see in Germany.

It would be quite hard to draw a picture of a table embodying such qualities as health, vigour, femininity, reason or moderation: which shows you that these weren’t factual descriptions at all, but symbolic commentaries. And ones which revealed some important national anxieties.

Unfortunately for France, which put all its eggs in the artistic excellence/ luxury products market, the real industrial powerhouses of the twentieth century turned out to be those that focused on excelling at mass production. France, defensively, fell back on its ‘tastemaker’ laurels at exactly the moment it should have been innovating.

Whilst all this is interesting for being an unusual analysis to put on art nouveau, what is perhaps more valuable is to think about modern-day parallels. In the 1890s, the renewed focus on national production in France came at the same time as some particularly unsavoury outbreaks of nationalism proper (the Dreyfus affair and General Boulanger for those who know their French history!) This rings some bells in terms of the UK today. Recently we’ve seen increased support from government for UK manufacturing at the same time as the rising popularity of isolationist parties and this stupid question of ‘leaving’ the EU. You could see these things as different manifestations of the same spectrum of sentiment: patriotism at best, racism at worst. Now, as then, these nationalist wobbles are in the context of a period of rapid technological change. If the history of France and art nouveau should teach us anything, it is that this is not a time to batten down the hatches and rely on old formulas.

If you want to read a much longer discussion of this subject, you can download the essay I wrote for my MA here (the last one).

Holiday Reading Notes: A World View from the Beach


Last week, as well as one real life, slightly freckly one, I took two literary companions with me to the beach. Iris Murdoch (The Bell, since you ask, and thank you Jan Casey for the inspiration), and a certain Erik Larson. Murdoch’s company was, as expected, faultless, with just the right mix of humour, melancholy and human fallibility – and some provocative reflections on the psychology of catholics. I entirely agree with this reviewer. Larson was more of an unknown quantity, but, as it turned out, an intriguing one.

The book in question, ‘The Devil in the White City’ (and in this case many thanks to David Kester for the recommendation) is a very individual account of the ‘Columbian World Fair’ built by Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus setting foot on solid ground. America’s 400th birthday party, and an attempt to prove to the rest of the world it had come of age. It followed the example of previous such World Fairs/ Great Exhibitions/ ‘Expos’ in inviting contributions and displays from all nations, and foregrounding developments in science, art and technology. It made history for – among many other things – the invention of shedded wheat, and the Ferris wheel, Chicago’s answer to Paris’s scene-stealing Eiffel Tower unveiled at their own world fair of 1889. But its USP, as it were, hinted at by the name, the ‘White City’, was its sheer scale and distinctive architectural presence. All neo-classical, all whitewashed, it struck a remarkable contrast to neighbouring Chicago proper (dark, filthy, dangerous), and became a ground-breaking demonstration to Americans that their cities might be places of beauty as well as commerce.

The unique thing about Larson’s book is his approach to this subject: his is, in fact, a story of two men, told in parallel. A tale of two of history’s great creative minds and powerful personalities, bent on very different ends. One, the architect who envisioned and built the fair, and the other, the psychopath who carefully seduced and destroyed unworldly young women who came to Chicago to see this most awesome of 19th century spectacles.

Actually, if I had one criticism of the book, it is that the two narratives, apart from their simultaneity in place and time, seem really to bear scant relation to one another. Both are fascinating, but neither gains quite enough by being interwoven with the other to warrant the effort. However, I can understand the irresistible temptation of this project for the historian, this mission into the past to reconstruct – and compare – the doings of two compelling characters. And in fact the combination of architectural history, murder and inept 19th century policing made great beach book fodder. Highly recommended.

It is also essential reading for anyone with an interest in the curious phenomenon of world fairs. Larson does a great job of conveying the Jules Verne-esque ambition and theatricality, and the patchy distinction between the real, the exotic and the mystical that was a feature of Victorian thinking. It was a time when ambitions were rarely tempered by reality, because reality was changing so quickly: if men were now able to make light without a flame (electricity), and build babel-like towers out of steel, what other equally improbable things might turn out to be possible? It must have been an exciting time to be alive.

Having recently familiarised myself (for the purposes of essay-writing) with the Parisian Expos of 1889 and 1900, I have begun to suspect that the fact that we still have a globe-trotting merrigoround of ‘World Expos’ – the modern day descendants of these 19th century circuses – blinds us to the enormity of the spectacle they must once have been. Kicked onto the world stage by our very own Prince Albert in 1851, the world fair tradition provoked the technical advancement (including in warfare) which has eventually erased its own relevance.

With the immediacy of access to knowledge about the rest of the world that we now have, via screens if not through actual physical travel, the World Expo as an event has presumably lost at least part of its power and meaning. If we want to know what China is manufacturing or what a certain African tribe believes – it’s pretty easy to find out. But back then knowledge of the world was a privilege few could access. The fairs opened it up to the masses. Even longer ago than our own generations the magic of the fair must have started to wane. After the First World War, only 20 years after Paris was captivated by electric light shows for the first time, the world must already and suddenly have seemed a far less mystical and enticing place.

But can we recreate what the spectacle of the fair signified to Victorian eyes? Can we imagine the sheer gobsmacking amazement that must have accompanied the sight of – for example – entire Pygmy tribes in mock-up huts on the banks of the Seine, of a steel and glass palace enclosing giant oaks in Hyde Park, or of the rapid construction on the shores of Lake Michigan of a gleaming white city? I think the resonance of these affairs is still just within our grasp – but for how much longer? With all the recent WWI centennial activity, someone ought to bring this 19th century phenomenon into the popular spotlight. There are historians aplenty to do the talking heads bit. And, most wonderfully, Thomas Edison can supply all the footage.

The Prince of Denmark and Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron

This week I finally got to see Jerusalem. It was just as good as everyone says, possibly better. This is probably about the third or fourth time I have seen Mark Rylance on stage, I have already learned to expect great things: his Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron did not disappoint. From the moment he hobbled out of his caravan, upended himself over a water trough like a gymnast on the bar, and gulped down a mixture of raw egg, milk and vodka, I was hooked. I think the whole audience was.

But this particular performance immediately reminded me of another I was recently similarly impressed by: Michael Sheen’s Hamlet, currently at the Young Vic and, in fact, directed by the same person, Ian Rickson. In that case, the realisation that it was going to be a brilliant production happened more slowly, when, about ten minutes in, it dawned on me that, in spite of the archaic language, I for once entirely understood what was happening, and Hamlet’s predicament. Further, Sheen is the first actor, in the first production, that has actually made me feel the heart of the play, the heartbreak at the centre of it.

Beyond the fact that both of these actors are so good it is almost exhilarating to watch them for a couple of hours, there are some other odd similarities between these two tales, so far apart in time and context.

In both cases the protagonists are men driven by their own internal moral compass, and the tension, and narrative, comes from this being fundamentally at odds with their context. They are both characters that hover on the edge of accepted notions of sanity. Perhaps they themselves don’t have a clear view of their psychological state. Both plays indulge in references to the paranormal, without it ever being quite clear whether this is a fiction of the protagonist’s unbalanced brain, or true magic.

But insane or not, they create interest because their very nature questions the accepted wisdom around them. One of Jerusalem’s central points is to defend a kind of natural order and balance, that might at first glance look like chaos, as opposed to the true idiocy inherent in excessive bureaucracy. We easily identify with Rooster over the local council.

These are individuals alone in a hostile world, local princes whose land is invaded and sovereignty questioned. And both are tragically victorious in defeat. The only possible outcome of such a standoff is carnage – but it is a carnage they knowingly invite, on principle.

They are not easy parts, and the sense of the play depends on the ability of the central actor. This is surely why Hamlet is a classic and Jerusalem sure to be one. If Hamlet and Rooster can’t be made to seem warm, human, charismatic – funny – then the play makes no emotional sense. Hamlet is just a whiny, paranoid, cowardly, mummy’s boy; Rooster is just an offensive, idiotic drunk. Luckily Sheen and Rylance have no problem conveying the brilliance of the mind that is permanently on the edge; the nobility of the man desperately trying to remain true to himself; and the deep sense of humanity that drives both plays. In their hands, Hamlet and Rooster’s struggles are admirable rather than baffling.

I loved both these plays for reassuring me – and sometimes it feels easy to forget – that brilliant doesn’t have to mean obscure; high culture can be accessible, relevant, and funny. The Morris-dancing scene in Jerusalem was genuinely hilarious. Hamlet’s stroppy showdown with his mother reminded us of what he is really, when it comes down to it, upset about. And although emphatically not what they were originally written to do, there is an element in both of them of critiquing the ridiculousness of the global institutions of the 21st century. They do a good job in reminding us that the powers that be don’t have all the answers, and anyway some things cannot be explained, nor should they be.

We will never know whether Hamlet really was mad. It is ok not to decide whether Rooster’s bacchanalian drumbeat summoned the giants footsteps or the rumbling of JCBs. At a time when it is publicly unacceptable to be uncertain about anything (how often do we hear politicians say ‘I am very clear that…’?), such antiheroes offer a more captivating, and human, alternative.

The Art of Looking British

As part of an ongoing quest to discover whether it is possible to talk about a specifically British visual culture, or visual language, my first foray into the London Design Festival was structured around home-grown work. The below is series of notes and observations rather than a well-constructed argument. Feel free to disagree.

My itinerary went like this:

This Way Up from the British Council. Fifteen years of architecture, design and fashion leftovers from exhibitions that have toured the world. Featuring ‘The 21st Century Dandy’, a collection referencing the 19th century style-maker Beau Brummel, mannequins papered by scraps of the FT, a bookstore, a team of upcyclers, and Tom Dixon’s black lights. In an enterprising little twist, and as part of a ruse to clear out some of the British Council’s cupboards, many of the pieces are up for silent auction.

Imagined Cities at the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs. I used to live round the corner from Leather Lane, and had this café been there at the time I would have spent a lot of pennies on coffee. The interior is beautifully stripped back to bare brick walls, and for LDF they are hung with fantastical architectural drawings collected by Dainow & Dainow. All produced by British architectural students, the designs – motivated by real challenges – present imaginary ways of making urban living work.

Alan Fletcher at the Aram Store. Fletcher, a highly influential graphic designer and ‘a visual jackdaw’, amassed an archive of incidental curiousities and meaningful coincidences over his lifetime, which are brought together in his compendium, The Art of Looking Sideways. One could spend an entire day lost in this book, with page after page of visual double entendres, riddles, pearls of wisdom and literary excerpts. His polymath mind seemed to see connections everywhere, and delighted in pointing them out to others.

British-Ish at the V&A. One of the best things about the LDF being based at the V&A is the opportunity to discover different parts of the museum. For this installation, contemporary student work from University of the Arts London – fashion, ceramics, graphics, film, jewellery – is spliced into the British Galleries on the top floor. Furniture knitted out of wire thread sits alongside originals from the 1851 Great Exhibition. Pieces reference our colonial past – the  set of metal and paper lanterns that blend the structures of ship’s lantern and Chinese paper lantern; the beginnings of rampant consumerism – a printable paper suit; and concern for the natural world – a new beehive design.

– The Brutal Simplicity of Thought in the Sackler Centre.  A series of visual puns by M&C Saatchi (an oil drum stencilled with the words ‘Why do all roads lead to Baghdad?’), and musings on the difficulty of communicating simply.

Few and Far on the Brompton Road. Priscilla Carluccio’s emporium of exquisitely crafted products presents an exhibition of timber furniture from Pinch Design. Precisely detailed, quirky, and reassuringly expensive.

Flock on North Terrace. Successfully inhabiting a bit of in-between space behind the Brompton Road, this collection by female designers is edgy and thoughtful, a series of symbolic and performative pieces, commenting on domestic life, dual nationalities, and fetishes.

These are some of the themes I noticed.

– I have a suspicion that British visual culture is not primarily visual at all, in the sense of being particularly concerned about formal qualities or the golden ratio, and the design work I saw reflected this trait. Nothing is blue for the sake of being blue. Everything is referential. Most work is primarily driven by some kind of intellectual idea, or historical reference point, or cultural ambiguity.

– Multi-culturalism is totally embedded, synthesising and regurgitating multiple influences and reference points. But not in an overt way, almost unselfconscious, as a given.

– Subversion is prevalent. In a very British, understated way, there is rarely out-and-out protest, but there is a challenge in everything, often done with humour.

– Related to this, words and language underpin everything. The history of artistic achievement in this country is dominated by forms based on language and literature. It is no coincidence that the English vocabulary is the largest of the European languages. We may not have the architectural richness of Rome, but we have great texture in our sentences. Design work often refers back to the world of words and ideas, narratives and puns, histories and biographies. The cover of Alan Fletcher’s book is decorated with text.

– There is an obsession with advanced craft. British designers are increasingly experimenting with, and mastering, highly articulated processes that require a fusing of technical and digital expertise with creative direction. Precise results, pointed uses.

– Meaning is everywhere. Beauty is not necessarily a relevant word. Some of the pieces are visually pleasing – calming to the eye. But mostly they are not. Mostly they are provoking rather than soothing.

– In an interesting parallel, I think many of these phenomena are visible across the city. London’s development has rarely been driven by formal aesthetic considerations. Beauty has never been mission critical. The remnants of different communities are superimposed on each other. We have a skyscraper named after a burger garnish. Architectural precocity sits alongside disregarded space. Financial gain trumps beauty time and again.

So there you are: difficult, subversive, literary, funny, intellectual, experimental, and occasionally, when it is relevant, pretty.

The Power of Making

I was really quite excited about going to see the V&A’s ‘Power of Making’. I rushed down to the opening after a work event and just made the last half hour, peeking over the shoulders of champagne-swilling guests to read the exhibit labels. But as beautiful, varied – and often odd – as some of the objects were, I left feeling something was missing.

When I was little, and still when I was not so little, we used to go almost every year to the Cotswold Wildlife Park. Most people probably haven’t been to, nor heard of, the Cotswold Wildlife Park; but it was a permanent fixture of my childhood, equivalent in my head from a very early age with the word ‘zoo’.

Above and beyond the awesome big cat section, the toy train (just like being on safari I thought), the adventure playground and the vast, peacock-strewn lawns of a very elegant private house where we always had our picnic, my favourite feature of the Cotswold Wildlife Park was the glassmith.

If you went into the bat house and up some very unlikely looking stairs, at the top you would find a small workshop. Shelves of tiny crystal animals filled the walls, and in one corner the man himself – a magician as far as I was concerned – sat all day, conjuring tiny fragile figures out of glowing molten glass. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched someone blowing glass, but it is mesmerising: the array of tiny tools, the changing colours as the glass cools, the unlikely shapes that all of a sudden, with a flick of the wrist, become something recognisable. My favourite trick was the chain of elephants, in descending size like Russian dolls, looped together trunk to tail. It wasn’t often that I came away without clutching some tiny glass creature – a hedgehog, a hippo – all wrapped up in tissue paper. But as pretty as the figures were, the thing that caught my attention was always the wondrous process of making.

‘To make’ is a verb. The Power of Making show is a room full of nouns. And some of them are so intricate, bizarre, or baffling to look at, it is unfortunately hard to imagine how they were made. Perhaps this is only a problem for me: other visitors might be just as content to see the finished product as the half-finished form emerging under the maker’s hands. But the show’s blurb does say the intention is to ‘encourage visitors to consider the process of making, not just the results’. Admittedly there are a few films of makers doing their thing; there was a silversmith present at the opening, etching away at a knife handle; there is a programme of demonstrations and a weekly ‘tinker space’; the exhibition guide contains a ‘glossary of techniques and processes’. But this is all a side-show to the main attraction. The only thing that unites this eclectic collection of objects is that they were crafted by unbelievably skilled, probably very patient people, and the people are by and large missing.

I have to admit I’m not sure how you would achieve the desired effect of showcasing ‘making’ rather than ‘made objects’, without simply setting up a load of craftsmen in a room to tinker away – which is not very original and perhaps not even appropriate for a setting like the V&A, a collection of collections. But I do think, in spite of the evident care and expertise with which the show has been curated and designed (it all looks beautiful), they have missed a trick. The fascination of the Cotswold Wildlife Park glassmith eluded me.


For some other opinions on the Power of Making, read Alastair Sooke here, Marina Vaizey here, and some pretty pictures on the Dezeen blog here.

Power of Making is the second exhibition in the V&A/Crafts Council partnership.
6 September 2011 – 2 January 2012 in the Porter Gallery

Yes John Hayes! Now go tell the Department for Education.

The Crafts Council’s parliamentary reception yesterday afternoon featured a late but inspired appearance from Skills Minister John Hayes.

The Tory MP (declared personal hero William Morris) seems to have an impressive grasp of the complex argument that craft, creativity and making is fundamental to the human condition, that few other politicians share. He said that ‘the work of the hands, and the body’, was just as, if not more, ‘likely to lead to the sublime as the pursuit of academia’.

His references – Ruskin, Morris, Keats, Lord Shaftesbury – suggest a depth of reading only undertaken by the genuinely interested. He acknowledged the errors of governing with a policy system that only recognises as valid evidence economic arguments, rather than such abstract but important concepts as the pursuit of truth and beauty. (Yes, he actually said this.)

In policy terms, this conviction has led to his championing of an unprecedented commitment to increasing apprenticeships, to reinstating the guild system – to reinforcing the dignity of the non-academic.

So far so good, what a great champion for skills. But when the Department for Business are making such progressive statements, the question on everyone’s lips, the elephant in the room, is what on earth is the Department for Education up to? The two Whitehall departments say they are talking to each other, but in actual fact their policies or, dare one say it, ideologies, appear to be widely divergent. A casualty of Cameron’s hands-off approach when headstrong Ministers develop policies in line with personal convictions, perhaps?

The renewed focus at the Department for Education on numeracy and literacy is clearly important, but also a classic politicians’ answer: if British children are crap at English and maths (as OECD stats suggest), it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s because they are not being taught for enough hours or tested rigorously and frequently enough. This is a rumination for another day, but the relevance here is that the worrying over numeracy and literacy will make a casualty of some other skills, squeezed out of the compartmentalised timetable.

Why, if craft, designing, making, inventing, manufacturing, is so important to the country and the economy (as the closing lines of Chancellor Osborne’s budget speech declared) is the Department for Education instituting a mainstream educational system that sidelines craft, design & technology, and art?

These activities shouldn’t only be available to those with a ‘practical’ tendency, as Hayes seemed to be suggesting (and in fact they are probably just as important for pushing the bookishly clever out of their comfort zone.)

They are not niche subjects. And they are not non-academic.

If we want to build a creative knowledge economy full of entrepreneurs, high-tech manufacturers, agents of innovation and ambitious start-ups, we need individuals well-versed in the literary greats who can manage the financial side of a business – but who also manifest exemplary creative thinking skills.

Finally: beyond the cold hard implications for UK GDP, denying children the opportunity to learn how to express themselves creatively is basically inhumane – and won’t drive up educational outcomes in other areas.

Spoonerisms, Broadband and the Creative Industries

What an odd morning. Jim Naughtie, in a brilliantly Freudian spoonerism, managed to say the worst word in the BBC’s book live on-air whilst introducing Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary. And then the abovementioned Culture Secretary went on to speak at an event called ‘The Future of the Creative Industries’, in which the creative industries were barely discussed.

What was apparently happening, to the slight bemusement of some attendees (Crafts Council to my left, literary agent to my right), was the launch of ‘Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future’, a joint BIS and DCMS policy paper. Rather than discussing, as advertised by event host Reform, ‘his vision for the future of the creative industries’, Hunt explained the thinking behind the government’s plans for broadband rollout and upgrades.

In pondering the discussion afterwards, I was (still am) bemused as to how to analyse the announcements: on their merits as a plan for broadband rollout, or as the totality of the government’s vision for the future of the creative industries?

If it’s the first: I’m not an expert. Although I would say it looks like they are marginally prioritising spend on high-speed capacity for economic growth, rather than universal access – which is surely where the ‘Big Society’ emphasis would be.

If it’s the second: oh dear.

Digital accessibility is clearly relevant for many of the businesses and organisations that fall into the ‘creative industries’ bracket – in terms of reaching wider audiences, transacting and communicating online, exporting – and opens up other relevant questions for content producers, such as intellectual property protection in a digital environment. Joining Hunt on the panel, Peter Bazalgette (former chief creative officer at Endemol) mentioned more than once the notion that the new digital age presents a ‘challenge to the heritage business models of the content producing industries’ – which is probably the closest anyone came to addressing the topic as billed.

Whilst important, this is not the whole story for the future of creative businesses. To be clear, the current official list includes: Advertising, Art and Antiques, Architecture, Crafts, Design, Fashion, Film, Leisure software, Music, Performing Arts, Publishing, Software, TV and radio. These are not the only industries likely to be affected by faster internet.

What, if anything, does it signify that a discussion of the future for the creative industries revolved so narrowly around broadband capabilities? Because, although perhaps unintentionally, focussing on broadband as an economic enabler sends a very blunt message to those industries that can never be primarily digitally-based.

In short, it suggests that if it’s not music, media or broadcasting, its at best economically irrelevant, at worst, doomed.

In relation to that, Reform’s own narrow, media-focussed analysis of the Creative Industries in their recent booklet A Creative Recovery (see list of contributors here) was equally skewed. It now seems deliberately so to align with the forthcoming digital policy, or at least a ploy to persuade the Culture Sec to come and speak at a Reform event. A slightly Machiavellian approach and surely not one to earn them friends or credibility across the creative industries.

Perhaps they were just worried about the appeal of a discussion of this particular policy. The paper itself is a tad dry. Was this just a trick to lure ‘creatives’ into the room, bolt the doors, and then fill them with facts about IT infrastructure?

Or is this really all the government has to say on the future of the creative industries? Let’s hope not.

Ed Vaizey @ London Design Festival

Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture and Creative Industries, is a very charming raconteur. At one point during his ‘in conversation’ with Times critic Alex O’Connell for London Design Festival, he audibly admonished himself halfway through a sentence: ‘I must learn to be more discreet…’ Perhaps still adjusting to the verbal self-censoring required of being in Government? Disarming and witty, when O’Connell asked for his thoughts on the suggestion that he is ‘Boris without the rubbish’, he graciously responded, ‘I’m Boris without the enormous, classically-trained brain.’ It’s hard to gauge how much art goes into his artlessness, but nevertheless it’s a pleasing trait in a politician: Vaizey often appears as though he might be about to wander refreshingly off-message, or that he’s imparting something he perhaps shouldn’t.

But is this outward charm simply the distracting face (along with that of the not-too-hard-on-the-eye Jeremy Hunt) of a governmental team who behind the scenes are under the questionable influence of Rupert Murdoch, have little sympathy for the arts, and are slashing budgets at will?  That scenario would be worst case for the majority of Vaizey’s audience during this LDF event, and probably what not a few of them suspect, in spite of their laughter at his jokes: are we being duped by the public school boy charm, enticed into believing the Tories aren’t really That Bad?

It’s hard to pinpoint, in the melange of bluster and refreshing honesty, where the truth-line actually lies, and understandably much of the audience was concerned with pressing him on the thorny issue of funding cuts. But this much is clear: he does have a natural sympathy and understanding of ‘the Arts’. As a Shadow Minister (and still now) he (or rather his office) produced an excellent weekly briefing on the Cultural and Creative Industries, sometimes an excuse for Ben Bradshaw-bashing, but generally incredibly well-researched. In partnership with Damian Collins, formerly of M&C Saatchi and Lexington Communications, now a colleague in the House of Commons, he instigated the Conservative Creative and Cultural Industries Network. And, as is often cited, his mother is an eminent art critic. But, however reassuring it is to have a Minister who will at least be a willing and enlightened advocate for his portfolio, as he himself pointed out, these things don’t mean he will be able to extort huge sums from the Treasury when a minimum of 25% reductions are being demanded of Ministers across the board.

Where Design impinges on his understanding is less clear. Always slightly uncomfortable with its own placement, subsumed in the ‘Creative Industries’ portfolio, there are in fact myriad ways in which politicians might choose to understand the point and usefulness of the design sector. This particular discussion focussed mainly on The Arts, rather than Design, which was perhaps slightly disappointing given the context of the conversation (the London Design Festival), but not surprising given the nature of the questioner (The Times Arts Editor). However Vaizey’s few comments on Design were both encouraging and slightly obfuscating.

He said the outlook for innovation bodies like NESTA and the Design Council – the latter currently under review – was broadly positive. He said he recognised that British design is globally important. He said he knows we’re good at it. (‘Maybe it’s because Brits are natural non-conformists’.) He said he was there to make it clear that government knew and appreciated the Festival was happening. He said, upon prompting from Sir John Sorrell, that he recognised the opportunity he personally had to bridge and join up BIS and DCMS, as a Minister for both, and perhaps encourage certain other Departments (DfE?) to be a little more progressive.

Indeed, that he was there at all is not insignificant given the Labour heritage of the festival: LDF was inaugurated under the previous Labour government in 2003, Chairman Sir John Sorrell held several quango posts under the last government, Director Ben Evans was a speechwriter for Neil Kinnock, and in 2008 Mandelson made the opening speech. But then Vaizey was always diligent in doing the rounds with industry as a Shadow Minister, and is thus fairly well-versed and -connected.

On the more complex stuff he was vague. Lesley Morris of the Design Council asked if he felt there was an understanding across government of the social and economic value of design. His answer to this, presumably intended to reassure, was in fact oddly off-point. (As a benchmark, the top-marks, no-BS answer for this audience would probably have acknowledged that, whilst some politicians have grasped the fact that the design industry is a national asset, very few in government comprehend the strategic usefulness of design, and the wider contribution the UK’s own design industry could make socially, economically, and to government.)

What he actually said was, that although it was perhaps unknown to the general public, there were quite a few ‘relationships’ between Tory MPs and designers. His examples were Samantha Cameron – the Creative Director of Bond Street stationer, Smythson – and George Osborne, whose father founded the firm of fabric and wallpaper designers, Osborne & Little. Whatever you may think of their design credentials, it is still highly questionable to imply ‘knowledge’ by means of a personal relationship, and particularly in the realm of politics and government, and particularly in relation to a Tory administration. Not to mention the fact that with regard to any other sector – health, for example – such a statement would have sounded absurd: my Mum’s a medical doctor actually so, yes, I do consider myself qualified to advise. (And forget the old adage ‘a letterhead never killed anyone’. Poor design does kill people, occasionally.)

This is the kind of preconception the design profession is up against, politically, and its own inherent tribalism doesn’t help. In persuading the government to treat it as a profession like any other, a little unity within its own ranks wouldn’t hurt. It also wouldn’t hurt to turn up when the Minister responsible for your industry is giving a personal audience, floor open for questions – even if it is 8.30 in the morning. Perhaps politicians are just better morning people than designers.

Sargent and the Sea at the RA

A Boat in the Waters off Capri, John Singer Sargent, 1878

Every season has its delights, its specialities. This weekend there is a definite feel of seasons turning, summer finally receding into something less exceptional. The morning air has lost that laundered quality it has in the height of summer. Not that I’m not looking forward to winter (the cosy indoorness, the cold, dark evenings and twinkling lights) but when it comes to weather, extremes are best, and even for an optimist this in-between period in our rainy isle is just less good.

So for those depressed by the onset of the mediocrity of autumn, for a last burst of summer, there are a number of options. One: go on holiday to somewhere not too far flung. Spain or Greece are achievable and still pleasantly warm. Two: try a sun bed. Perhaps not recommended by doctors, although I can’t see that the occasional vitamin D top-up is really that bad for us sun-starved Brits. Or, three, and less expensive than either of the previous two: visit the John Singer Sargent exhibition at the Royal Academy, before it closes on the 26th September.

Don’t be scared: this isn’t a marathon retrospective, it won’t take more than an hour. It’s just a very well-structured collection of some truly excellent paintings; specifically, a survey across the years that draws out Sargent’s depictions of the sea. Sounds promisingly romantic.

What is clear from the displays of early sketchbooks and essays in oil is that his was a prodigious talent already mature by the age of twenty. A product of his environment, Sargent’s American parents were cultural itinerants, his childhood spent touring Europe: a privileged upbringing in which any artistic inclination was sure to be nurtured. However that is not to downplay his achievements. His works display an impressive combination of sensitivity, accuracy of observation and judgement – never too detailed, he deploys enough impressionistic flair to allow the true sense of his scenes to emerge, somehow more powerfully than in the literalness of photography.

Sargent is neither the first or last artist to have been fascinated by the qualities of light and provoked to capture its effects – particularly on water. It is the pinnacle of painterly challenge to successfully convey in static the essence of an effect whose magic lies in constant motion. However from many of these paintings, the sun radiates into the grey-white gallery space of the Sackler wing. The glittering light and saturating heat of the Mediterranean summer; the mix of nausea and awe in his vertiginous paintings of a mid-Atlantic storm, prow plummeting down the side of wave-mountains; multiple seaside and harbour scenes, some (although not all) extraordinary for their vibrancy within a limited palette. The locations, the genus loci, are suffused in the paintings, so even without labels they would be identifiable: the delicate scenery and figures of Brittany, the northern light and clog-wearing fisherwomen, slender waists and ankles, compared with the lazy luxury of the Capri paintings – children like cherubs, and sunbathing figures looking almost stricken by the heat, against azure seas and dramatic rockfaces.

This is the kind of artist with whom the non-artist can fundamentally identify – he may have been a paid professional, renowned for his society portraiture, but these paintings emphasise his basic creative motivation; someone for whom the highest credit he could pay to what he saw as the inherent beauty of the world around him was to commit it to canvas. These everyday scenes are so precious they have to be captured. Except perhaps in always eluding complete capture, the artist’s work is never done.

This is also the kind of exhibition that makes you want to pick up a pencil and an untouched sketchbook and have a go yourself. From experience I know that the results are invariably mediocre at best: my lines are always ugly and awkward and not at all how I want them to be. There is a fatal breakdown in communication between intention and hand. So it is all the more impressive when you come across such a brilliant draughtsman, an artist whose hand appears to absolutely obey the will of his eye and brain, to perfectly channel his emotional response to the world around him.

Posted in Art