Finally, after more than two years confined to barracks by the pandemic, we’re back on the road again. Not overseas: the timing still doesn’t seem right, and in any case the burning desire to visit far off foreign parts has cooled a bit. Maybe the passion will return in due course, maybe not, but unless and until our outlook changes there’s plenty to keep us occupied here in the UK.
The county of Norfolk is one of our favourite English destinations, and it was the obvious place for us to take our first proper UK holiday (that’s “vacation” to you guys in North America!) since summer 2019. And every time we visit Norfolk we make a point of spending a day at the wonderful Pensthorpe Natural Park.
Pensthorpe started out as a large gravel extraction enterprise, with over 1 million tonnes being dug out and carted off to who-knows-where. But instead of becoming a permanent scar on the landscape the site has been sensitively transformed into something of real value to the local community, and to visitors from further afield like Mrs P and I. Today it’s a bit of an oddball mixture, part old-fashioned waterfowl exhibit, part nature reserve, part conservation hub, part sculpture park, part kids’ activity centre. There’s something for just about everyone at Pensthorpe Natural Park.
The Park is run as a business, which in principle sits a little uncomfortably with me. In practice, however, the owners – Bill and Deb Jordan, top dogs in a family-owned breakfast cereal company – appear genuinely committed to the restoration and protection of the natural world. There’s nothing to suggest they put profit ahead of sound conservation practice, and I’m therefore relaxed in saying that they get my vote.
Bill and Deb win further brownie points from me for setting up a charitable trust, the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, to work with their commercial operation. Established in 2003, the Trust aims “to establish a centre of excellence, habitat management and restoration alongside conservation of wetland and farmland bird species through captive breeding programmes in national conservation partnerships.” Corncrakes, cranes, red squirrels and turtle doves are amongst the species currently benefitting from the Trust’s activities.
Our return visit to Pensthorpe last month did not disappoint, even though the management has yet to erect a commemorative plaque at the spot where I broke my ankle in a fall on a snowy winter’s day in 2013! The lakes and woods teemed with wildlife, and although there was nothing exceptionally rare to be seen on this occasion it was great to get back into natural world after the miseries of Covid.
It was also great to bump into a former work colleague, albeit totally unexpected given that we were around 120 miles (nearly 200 km) from the office and had not seen each other since she moved on some eight or nine years ago! Amanda is a lovely lady, passionate about sport, physical fitness and wellbeing, and – as I now discovered – birdwatching too.
Amanda explained that she is currently working on the government’s Green Social Prescribing project. The initiative enables doctors to help improve mental health outcomes and reduce health inequalities amongst suitable patients by prescribing “nature-based interventions and activities, such as local walking for health schemes, community gardening and food-growing projects.”
I was previously only vaguely aware of Green Social Prescribing. But hearing Amanda talk about the initiative as we sat together in a bird hide, gazing out over a tranquil lake where ducks, geese, and swans were going about their daily business and squadrons of swallows whizzed happily overhead, it now made perfect sense.
I felt more at peace on our day at Pensthorpe, and during the visits we made the same week to several other Norfolk nature reserves, than at any time since Covid hit. For me there is no doubt that getting back to nature – close to wildlife and wild places, distant from the stresses and strains of 21st century urban life – revives the spirit and nurtures the soul.
Before our visit last month it had been around three years since our last trip to Pensthorpe. But guess what – we’ll be going back real soon!
So, follow our example and get back to nature, guys. You know it makes sense!
Yorkshire Sculpture Park is the gift that keeps on giving. Although it’s featured in two previous posts – you can read them here and here – there’s still more I need to say about YSP. Our latest visit was in September last year, when we explored parts of the park that had so far eluded us. In the process we got acquainted with the work of Damien Hirst, not to a mention a monstrous handbag and a plethora of hats.
Let’s start with the handbag. Bag of Aspirations by Kalliopi Lemos (b. 1951 in Greece) is fashioned from steel, although it’s painted to look like leather. Here’s what the YSP website has to say about it:
Bag of Aspirations is a vastly scaled-up version of the famous Birkin handbag made by French fashion house Hermès. This expensive and highly sought-after bag has become associated with luxury and exclusivity, and embodies the values and desires of a consumer culture. Lemos often investigates how such trends in society affect and frame women in particular, exploring the way femininity is constructed and defined by narrow and restrictive ideals of beauty and behaviour
So, far from being frivolous, this monstrous handbag is making a serious point about 21st century society. Who would have guessed? Not me obviously: I saw the piece and just couldn’t help grinning. You see, Mrs P recently downsized her handbag but ever since has complained that it’s simply too small to hold all those bits and pieces that a girl just has to have with her at all times. I took one look at Lemos’s big beast of a bag and thought: there’s your solution Mrs P, but good luck carrying it!
But enough of this handbag nonsense, let’s move quickly on to Damien Hirst (b. 1965). Hirst rose to prominence in London in the late 1980s, and is one of the most notorious artists of his generation. He’s also said to be the UK’s richest living artist. His reputation precedes him: any man who displays whole animals pickled in formaldehyde and calls it art inevitably courts controversy, so we were intrigued to see what all the fuss is about.
First, it should be noted that no animals were pickled in the creation of Hirst’s works on display at Yorkshire Sculpture Park! However, they do make one hell of an impact. Standing 10 metres high, the Virgin Mother looms over the landscape in which it stands, and given that the skin has been peeled back from half the torso to reveal a foetus curled within the womb it’s also very hard to ignore. The pose reportedly echoes that of Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. However, unlike Hirst’s sculpture, Degas’s piece is fully clothed, has no skin hanging off and doesn’t appear to be with child, so the resemblance – in my humble opinion, anyway – is somewhat superficial!
Do I like Virgin Mother? Strangely, I think I do, even though on one level it’s macabre, even a little grotesque. For me it argues that beauty is only skin deep, and that if we are truly to understand what is before us we need to be sure to look beneath the surface rather than rely on what is in plain sight.
On a somewhat similar theme, Myth enables us to see beneath the skin of a unicorn. And we learn that even iconic mythological beasties depend on a framework of bones, tendons and muscles in order to do whatever it is that unicorns do. Again, Hirst reminds us not to be seduced by appearances, however romantic, and to look instead for the earthy reality that normally lies hidden from view.
Altogether more challenging is the statue of a disabled child that Hirst calls Charity. The 7 metres high, painted bronze sculpture may look oddly familiar to anyone who was out and about in the UK in the 60s and 70s, being based on the Spastic Society’s charity collection boxes that could be seen at that time on high streets up and down the land.
But times change, and so too do judgments as to what society does – and does not – find acceptable. The word “spastic” is today regarded as grossly offensive, and the charity that bore its name is now called Scope. And the design of its collection box also looks as if it comes from another, less inclusive age, an age when disabled people were regarded merely as objects of pity, poor vulnerable souls totally dependent upon the charitable handouts of others.
One may question why Hirst chose to imitate a negative image of disability that many people now find offensive. Crucially, all is not as it seems. Seen from the rear we notice that the gigantic collection box has been broken into, with coins scattered around and a crowbar left behind. Clearly this is not in any sense an homage to the original collection boxes, but an invitation to think about how society views disability.
The break-in fundamentally affects the meaning of the sculpture. For me it says that the negative portrayal of disability inherent in the original collection boxes – which reflected views that were widespread within British society at that time – was in itself an act of theft, stealing the dignity and self-esteem of the very people the boxes were designed to support. Other interpretations are possible, and Hirst’s piece remains controversial within and beyond the disabled community. But although it’s not a comfortable image, if the artist’s primary intention was to stimulate debate and reflection about disability Charity certainly succeeds.
Another painted bronze by Damien Hirst – The Hat Makes the Man – is altogether more playful, suggesting that, although he normally keeps it well hidden, the artist does have a sense of humour. This bizarre, disjointed piece was apparently inspired by a tiny Max Ernst drawing dating from the 1920s. It features a plethora of felt hats, interspersed with the occasional straw boater and random sawn-up pieces of wood. Sigmund Freud, the famed founding father of psychoanalysis maintained that hats are a symbol of repressed male desire, so I’m not quite sure what to make of the fact that – although I haven’t a clue what it means – this sculpture really appealed to me!
Another of the sculptures that I liked a lot was Network, by Thomas J Price (b. 1981) There’s been a lot of controversy in the UK recently about who is – and is not – represented in public art. In particular, there have been loud protests that although sculptures of men who made huge fortunes from the slave trade in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries can still be seen, their victims are invisible. For this reason Price’s three metres tall sculpture of a casually dressed man of African (Caribbean) heritage studying his mobile phone seems to hit just the right note.
One of Mrs P’s favourite pieces was Wilsis by Jaume Plensa (b. 1951 in Spain), one of a series of heads of young girls from around the world, with eyes closed in a contemplative state. Intriguingly the view from the front appears traditionally three dimensional, but viewed from a different angle it’s plain that the statue is almost flat. Standing at over 7 metres tall, Wilsis makes a stunning impact within the lightly wooded landscape.
Next on this whistle-stop review of our most recent visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park, consider The Garden of Good and Evil by political activist Alfredo Jaar (b. 1956 in Chile) . It references secret one metre square detention cells (aka “black cells”) reputedly used by the CIA around the world. It is partially hidden within a lake, reflecting the fact that these secret centres are also hidden.
The Garden of Good and Evil makes uncomfortable viewing once you understand what has inspired its creation. But let’s end this post with a feel-good sculpture. Sitting, a monumental work by Sophie Ryder (b. 1963) is fashioned from wire and divided into two sections by a split that is clearly visible from the side. The anthropomorphic figure combines the head of a hare with a body modelled on Ryder’s own, and dominates the surrounding parkland.
Ryder is fascinated by hares, and features them frequently in her work: you can read more about what they mean to her here. But while I fully understand that for her the piece has great symbolic significance, for me the main point is that Sitting is exquisitely beautiful. This plainly isn’t true of all the sculptures at YSP, some of which are more intellectually challenging than aesthetically pleasing. And it is this sheer range of artistic endeavour that makes Yorkshire Sculpture Park such a great place to visit. so Mrs P and I will be making another return trip very soon!
FOOTNOTE TO REGULAR READERS OF THIS BLOG
Spring is in the air, the days are getting warmer and my excuses for not painting the bedroom and tidying up the garden are wearing a bit thin. So, for the next few months, I intend to post on this blog every 14 days – rather than weekly as now – publishing early on Wednesday mornings (UK time). Weekly posts will resume in late autumn…always assuming, of course, that I’ve finally finished decorating the bedroom!
What is it about steam locomotives that so captures the imaginations of young and old alike, both here in the UK and across the globe? Like Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Velociraptor they seem like monsters from another age, ill-suited to the modern world, and yet they hold their legions of fans enthralled.
Everyone loves a steam train, and Mrs P and I are no exception. We’ve experienced the romance of steam on several heritage railways (that’s railroads to you guys in North America!), but last year we decided to explore steam locomotives from a different angle when we took a trip to Barrow Hill Roundhouse in the north of our home county of Derbyshire.
Railway roundhouses were constructed to house and service steam locomotives. At the heart of most roundhouses was a turntable, where locomotives and other rolling stock could be turned around for the return journey. Radiating out from this central turntable – and thereby dictating the circular shape of roundhouses – were spokes of track where the locomotives could be serviced and stored.
Once roundhouses, and the turntables associated with them, were familiar sights up and down the UK’s rail network. But when, in the middle of the last century, steam locomotives were replaced with diesel and electric alternatives that could run equally well in either direction without the need to be physically turned around, turntables became surplus to requirements and most roundhouses were razed to the ground.
Barrow Hill Roundhouse was completed in 1870 and finally ceased operation in 1991. It quickly fell victim to vandalism and neglect, at which point a group of amateur train enthusiasts, the Barrow Hill Engine Shed Society, stepped in with a proposal to save it from demolition. Their vision won the backing of influential backers and charitable funders, and today Barrow Hill is said to be the last surviving railway roundhouse in the United Kingdom with an operational turntable. You can see the turntable in action, and soak up some of the atmosphere at the Barrow Hill Roundhouse, by clicking on the link below to my short YouTube video.
Visitors can see the turntable in action every day while also getting up close and personal with numerous steam and diesel locomotives, as well as a variety of other memorabilia in Barrow Hill’s impressive railway museum. The locomotives have been polished until they gleam, and standing next to them it’s easy to appreciate what magnificent, monstrous beasts they were.
Their time has passed and will never return – climate change and the need to control carbon emissions makes this a certainty – but they and their predecessors were at the heart of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Steam locomotives boosted the economy by enabling easy cross-country transportation of goods and materials, and changed society beyond recognition when they made swift, affordable long distance travel available to the masses. The display at Barrow Hill offers a pleasurable opportunity to wallow in nostalgia for few hours, and is recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in the romance of steam.
Back when I was a lad, if you wanted to see sculptures you had to go to an art gallery, or maybe a museum. True, if your interest extended no further than humanoid figures you could reasonably expect to see statues of former monarchs, politicians and sundry other ne’er-do-wells in civic spaces scattered throughout the urban landscape. But if your tastes ran to something less formulaic and more creative you were pretty much confined to museums, galleries and similar indoor areas.
And then, thankfully, some bright spark came up with the idea of sculpture gardens.
A sculpture garden, and its big brother the sculpture park, is an outdoor space dedicated to the presentation of durable, three dimensional works of art in landscaped surroundings. In galleries and museums sculpture is contained, hemmed in by walls and ceilings, often difficult to fully appreciate.
In sculpture gardens and parks however, sculpture sits comfortably within a spacious, natural environment, with room to breathe. And the sculptures and the landscape in which they sit enhance one another: the gardens and parks frame the sculptures, while the sculptures become visual anchors within their surroundings.
Sculpture parks can now be found throughout the length and breadth of the UK, and visiting one can be an uplifting experience. Last week I wrote about our visit to Burghley House, a grand mansion dating from the late 16th century. In total contrast to the baroque excesses of the house itself, one of the joys of the parkland at Burghley is an excellent sculpture garden featuring a variety of contemporary and modern pieces.
Burghley’s sculpture garden dates back only a couple of decades, but is situated in an area of the grounds originally fashioned by the famed late 18th century landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown. It combines a scattering of works on permanent display with an annual themed exhibition. The theme when we visited in 2021 (carried over from 2020, due to Covid) was ‘House‘, originally conceived to honour the 500th anniversary of the birth in 1520 of Burghley House’s founder William Cecil.
One of the most striking pieces on permanent display in the sculpture garden is Vertical Face II by English sculptor Rick Kirby. Works by Kirby are on display in various parts of the UK, and if Vertical Face II is typical I can see just why: it’s a haunting, enigmatic creation.
Equally serious – or, to be blunt, downright spooky – is Held by Anne Gillespie. The body of a man, folded into a foetal position and entombed in a rock wall, is not an easy piece to view, and is laden with hidden meaning. But what, exactly? I know what it means to me, but your interpretation may be totally different. And in the end that doesn’t really matter, the point is that we are required to exercise our brains and think about it…which, after all, is surely one of the purposes of art?
But art, and sculpture, doesn’t always have to be deep and meaningful: it can also, quite simply, be fun. The colourful sculpture of a snail, Cornu Cecilium by Pete Rogers, plainly fits into that category. However there is more to this piece than initially meets the eye. Commissioned for Burghley’s 2021 themed exhibition House, the shape of the snail’s shell echoes the grand octagonal towers of Burghley House.
I was also taken with the Trojan Horse. Fashioned from logs and standing several metres high it’s a quaintly rustic piece, and seems to be completely at ease in the lightly wooded landscape in which is stands.
Talking of wooded landscapes, if you go down to Burghley’s woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise: a family of whimsical bears enjoying a picnic, including mama bear in a faded blue dress. Again, there’s no great depth of meaning here, but it’s fun, isn’t it.
Also at home in the wooded landscape are the snowdrops of Everlasting Spring, another Pete Rogers creation. Snowdrops are “here and gone again” in the blink of an eye every spring, but thanks to Rogers they last all year long in Burghley’s sculpture garden.
Italian artist Michele Ciribifera’s Elicoide BG is definitely eye-catching. Elicoide translates from the Italian as “spiral” or “helical”, and this gleaming metallic piece stands out boldly in the verdant landscape of grass and trees. Maybe there is a hidden meaning here? Or is it simply intended to please the eye? Personally I’m inclined not to overthink it: the latter explanation works just fine for me.
And finally, in this whistle-stop tour of a few of the sculptures we saw at Burghley last year, is City Cuts by sculptor Paul Cox. Inspired by the 2007/08 world financial crisis, a handsaw is seen slicing into a swanky city skyscraper. This one is rather poignant for me. At the time of that economic meltdown I was working as a senior public service manager, and found myself forced to make massive cuts to stay within my greatly reduced budget. I was compelled to wield not just a saw, but an axe too.
Several of my staff, including friends whom I respected and admired deeply, sadly lost their jobs in the dark days and months that followed. Seeing this stark piece at Burghley certainly gave me cause to think about my own very small, local role in dealing with the impact of the global financial crisis all those years ago. It was not a particularly happy part of my life, but life’s not meant to be easy all the time, is it?
Thankfully those days are over, and because I’m retired I don’t have to worry about how to navigate my service through the new financial crisis brought about by Covid. So, while my unfortunate successor wrestles with that impenetrable problem, I have time on my hands to visit some more wonderful sculpture gardens, like the one at Burghley. Don’t they say that good things will eventually come to he (or she) that waits?
Have you ever heard of prodigy houses? No? Me neither until very recently, but although the terminology was foreign to me the buildings themselves are achingly familiar. I’ve trudged around numerous examples over the years, my eyes goggling at the ostentatious excesses to which previous generations of the idle rich would resort in order to show off to their peers. None, I would suggest, is more ostentatious than Burghley House.
Prodigy houses were large, extravagant country houses commissioned by the English aristocracy and noveau riche, particularly between about 1570 and 1620. They were the projects of families that had thrived under the Tudor dynasty, and were built with the intention of impressing visiting monarchs.
And yes, if you were a prominent, rich English subject your king or queen might well come a-calling. At this time in our history the sovereign, sundry family members and a large entourage of flunkies and hangers-on were in the habit of touring the realm every year on journeys known as summer progresses.
During these elaborate processional trips through the English shires Elizabeth I, and her Stuart successor James I, demanded to stay in the homes of their most wealthy, high status subjects. They expected to be entertained in the lavish style to which they were accustomed, and to avoid the risk of social humiliation – or perhaps much worse – their hosts invested in elaborate prodigy houses that simply oozed with the wow factor.
And nowhere did the wow factor ooze more copiously than at Burghley House, situated on the northern tip of Cambridgeshire close to the boundaries of Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire. It was built and mostly designed by William Cecil(later Baron Burghley, 1520 – 1598), who looked after the royal finances for many years as Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I.
The main part of the House has 35 major rooms on the ground and first floors. In addition there are more than 80 lesser rooms, as well as numerous halls, corridors, bathrooms and service areas. William Cecil may have been dimly aware of the concepts of modesty and frugality, but plainly wanted nothing to do with them.
The exterior of Burghley House is striking, a frantic skyline crowded with cupolas, turrets, and chimneys. Its intention is clear, to communicate a blunt message to anyone approaching the vast mansion: here lives a family that has more wealth, power and influence than you can possibly imagine!
Burghley’s interior, much of it remodelled during the late 17th century, is every bit as grand as the exterior promises. The Great Hall, for example, lives up to its name, while the rows of servants’ bells hint at the huge number of ordinary men and women needed to deliver the lifestyle demanded by the house’s owners and royal guests.
But it’s the painted ceilings and full height murals, many of them depicting scenes from Roman mythology, that really take the breath away. The Bow Room, for example, the work of the French painter Louis Laguerre (1663 – 1721) in 1697, is stunning. But can you imagine eating your dinner beneath that gaudy ceiling and surrounded by those huge, lurid murals? Plainly the 5th Earl of Exeter, a descendant of William Cecil could: it was his State Dining Room!
Meanwhile, another of the impressive state rooms, known as the Heaven Room, is reckoned to be the greatest masterpiece of the Italian artist Antonio Verrio (c1636 – 1707). It depicts a classical view of heavenly life, one in which countless fit, scantily clad gods and goddesses spend their days lounging around having a thoroughly good time.
Verrio was also responsible for the ceiling of the Hell Staircase, but its subject matter is altogether more sombre. Here we see the tortured souls of the damned being dragged into hell through the mouth of a devilish cat. Definitely the stuff of nightmares.
I really don’t know what to make of Burghley House, but maybe – just like Verrio’s ceilings – it is a vision of both of heaven and hell. On one level the building and its contents are undoubtedly magnificent, and although much of it isn’t to my taste I can appreciate the quality of the artwork.
But on the other hand, isn’t it all a bit over the top, just too excessive to take seriously? Restraint, subtlety and simplicity are in painfully short supply, and may indeed be altogether extinct at Burghley. Less is sometimes more, and if there’d been a bit less of it I would probably have appreciated it even more.
However there’s more to Burghley than just the house, thanks to an inspiring sculpture garden in the surrounding parkland. The contrast between the overblown baroque excesses of the house and the pared-back, thought-provoking and sometimes witty and whimsical sculptures is stark. Taken as a whole, the combination of house and sculpture garden is enticing, and make Burghley well worth a visit.
In my next post I’ll take you on a whistle-stop tour of Burghley’s sculpture garden. Meanwhile, here’s a taster to whet your appetite:
We really enjoyed our visit to Ford Green Hall, a fine example of a timber-framed farmhouse built in 1624 on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent in the county of Staffordshire. Who wouldn’t appreciate such an iconic building, positively dripping with atmosphere, creaking at the seams with nearly 400 years of history? Such places are strangely comforting, aren’t they, islands of calm and stability amidst a raging ocean of rapid change. They seem timeless, as perfect and wonderful as the day they were first conceived all those centuries ago.
But look a bit closer and you’ll quickly realise that it ain’t necessarily so.
When approaching Ford Green Hall the visitor’s attention is drawn to the picturesque timber-framed parts, which are plainly very old. And that’s why we’re here, isn’t it, to see some old stuff. We conveniently block out from our minds the fact that to either side of the building’s black-and-white core are two rather more modern and less attractive brick-built extensions.
The plain fact is that by the early 18th century Ford Green Hall wasn’t meeting its owner’s needs, so around 1734 he added two new wings. To our modern eyes these wings are somewhat unsightly – perhaps even a little ugly – and serve only to disfigure the majesty of the half-timbered building to which they’ve been attached. Back in the day, however, the owner will have felt very pleased with himself for modernising an inadequate building that appeared to be stuck in the past.
Worse was to follow – from our modern, sentimental perspective – in the years that followed. Half-timbered buildings fell out of fashion to such a degree that the external timbers were covered up altogether, coated in stucco to disguise the hall’s 17th century origins. The name of the game was modernisation: out with the old and in with the new, and if you can’t get rid of the old altogether at least do the decent thing and hide it from view.
In the nineteenth century the long term owners of the hall – the Ford family – moved away, prompting a further decline in its fortunes. Divided first into three and later four cottages, which housed local coal miners, the building’s glory days appeared over until the local council stepped in.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council purchased the hall in 1946 and, following a major restoration – including removal of all the hideous stucco – opened it as a museum in 1952. They furnished is sumptuously, in the style of a 17th-century yeoman farmer’s house.
When the Council ran into financial difficulties (don’t they all, sooner or later?) in 2011, the museum faced closure. At this point the voluntary sector came to the rescue, with a charitable trust taking over its running. And they’ve done a good job: as far as we could see, when we visited a few weeks ago. Ford Green Hall is thriving once again despite the best efforts of local government and the Covid virus to throw spanners into the works.
This restoration project has done a great job of preserving a historic structure that would otherwise have perished. However it’s important to remember that what exists today doesn’t reflect the vision of the man who commissioned the building in the early 17th century, and gives few hints as to its varied history.
When we visit Ford Green Hall, or any other historic building that has been restored for its heritage value, we are simply being treated to a snapshot in time. The true history of such places is always much more dynamic and complex than is apparent to the casual observer.
Derby is obsessed with rams. The city centre boasts at least three statues featuring rams. The local professional soccer team (Derby County) are nicknamed “The Rams” and have a mascot called Rammie. Derby’s annual half-marathon event was for many years known as the Ramathon. Even the city’s library service, when first introducing public internet computers in the late 1990s, called its new service Cyber-RAM.
This infatuation with rams (male sheep, also known as tups) is captured in a folk song known as The Derby Ram, or alternatively As I was Going to Derby. The story it tells can be traced back at least to the early 18th century. It’s a far-fetched and humorous, if somewhat gory, account of a huge ram taken to Derby market and the challenges townsfolk encountered when processing it for meat.
The song is well known in folk-singing circles in many parts of the English-speaking world. Even George Washington is reputed to have taken time off from thrashing the Brits to belt out his own rendition, although I’m not sure how we know this story is true. Links to a couple of recordings of the song are given at the end of this post.
How this tall tale came to be associated with Derby is unclear. More widely, however, during the Middle Ages rams were regarded as symbols of physical strength and sexual potency. It therefore takes no stretch of the imagination to understand why Derby folk might have been pleased to encourage a legend that linked them with such a feisty and formidable beast.
The link continues to this day, and is being celebrated during summer 2021 by an arts project called The Derby Ram Trail. Organised by the local Museums Trust, this is a free public art trail comprising 30 ram sculptures vibrantly decorated by a range of artists.
The sculptures are made of lightweight, fire-resistant fibreglass and are based on Michael Pegler’s millstone ram, which has been a Derby landmark for around a quarter of a century. The trail weaves its way through the city centre, and its organisers hope it will “[encourage] local people to explore and enjoy their city from an exciting new perspective.”
The Derby Ram Trail website explains how the project has been organised:
Businesses across the area were invited to sponsor a blank ram sculpture – the 3D canvas! New and established artists were then invited to submit designs to transform the blank rams with individual artworks. Design ideas were presented to sponsors in January 2020 who each selected their favourite. Successful artists were then commissioned to apply their designs to the sculptures in a wide range of media, both traditional and new, including fine art, illustration, graffiti and mosaic amongst others.
Forming a trail of discovery, the sculptures provide an exceptional, creative opportunity to engage people in important topics – from health and well-being to history and culture, to name a few.
Source: Derby Ram Trail website, retrieved 13 July 2021
For those with good local knowledge, the subject matter of some of the designs has an obvious connection with Derby or the surrounding county of Derbyshire. For example, decorating a ram to reflect artistic fashions current at the time the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses the Great, over 3,000 years ago, isn’t an obvious choice. However, once you understand that generations of local children have been inspired by two ancient Egyptian mummies displayed at Derby Museum and Art Gallery, all becomes clear. Rameses is one of my favourite rams, and the pun’s pretty good, too!
Another striking design with local connections is Royal Ram, inspired by one of Royal Crown Derby’s decorative animal paperweights. Royal Crown Derby pottery is made about a mile south of the city centre, and is sold to appreciative collectors across the world. Local heritage is also recognised in Nurse Nightingale, which honours the life and achievements of pioneering 19th century nurse Florence Nightingale, who was born just a few miles north of Derby. And standing outside the new Museum of Making, housed in the historic Silk Mill building, Derby Industries celebrates the city’s remarkable achievements in science and manufacturing.
The significance of For Those About to Rock initially escaped me, until I read on the trail’s website that the piece was inspired by music festivals held annually in Derbyshire, particularly Download and Bloodstock. The website explains that “in the Heavy Metal tradition of battle jackets, the ram is wearing a denim jacket covered in patches which, along with his tattoos, represent significant events and Derbyshire-related subjects.” By way of contrast, Woolly Rammy (a ram in sheep’s clothing) has a more obvious local connection, depicting a ram wearing a Derby-inspired woolly jumper which proudly displays a recognisably local street scene.
Doodle Derby is a bit more whimsical, being “based on all of the awesome things about our city from architecture, culture and outdoor spaces to real ale and how Derby first invented the hotdog! ‘Doodle Derby’ takes you on a tour of all the brilliant things you can do in the city and celebrates a diverse, colourful place of happiness and positivity – an inspiring Derby!” Hmm, hyperbole is alive and well, and living on the Derby Ram Trail website…but what the heck, it raises a smile, and don’t we all need that with Covid infections soaring yet again.
In some cases the connection between Derby and the ram’s design is distinctly tenuous. For example, Derby has no obvious links with pirates (some people claim it to be further from the sea than just about any other English city), but nevertheless Pirate Sheepmate seems to have made himself at home there. I love the parrot on his shoulder. Meanwhile the fierce-looking Rambo seems to be little more than an excuse for fond memories of “Sly” Stallone….and, of course, another groan-inducing pun!
Some of the rams are intended to convey a message that has universal relevance, rather than being specific to Derby. Memories Fade but Warmth Remains is perhaps the most obvious and poignant of these. The website explains that the artist “has combined the symbolism of the forget-me-not flower – a flower often associated with dementia – with that of the sunflower, symbolising warmth, deep loyalty and hope. Lynne wanted to create a message about the power of enduring love: that memories can fade but the warmth of the human spirit continues to shine.”
Walking the trail, which at a leisurely pace took us about half a day and included plenty of photo stops (Mrs P took over 400 pictures!), encouraged us to explore parts of the city centre that we’ve never seen before. It also took us past recent developments that are seeking to breathe new life into the place. Plenty of other people were also seeking out the rams, and I suspect were also discovering parts of Derby that were new to them.
The organisers set out to create a feel-good project, and from my point of view they definitely succeeded. Derby is not an especially attractive city, and has little to recommend it in either architectural or artistic terms. The decorated rams are therefore a welcome – albeit temporary – addition to the urban landscape, and certainly brighten up those parts of the city centre in which they are located.
With one exception – an old guy complaining (wrongly) that the cost of the project would result in his taxes going up – everyone we spoke with seemed to be enjoying the Derby Ram Trail, and found at least some of the artworks to be inspiring and uplifting. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the whole experience was the way the trail encouraged total strangers to talk to each other, and, even more remarkably, got them talking about art! That’s an achievement in which the organisers should take pride.
The sculpture trail will grace the city until 22 August 2021, after which the rams will all be herded together and sold by auction. The proceeds will go to Derby Museums Trust to support the delivery and development of their services, which seems like an appropriate reward for the organisation that was the brains behind the Derby Ram Trail. Moreover, Derby is planning an application to be the UK’s next city of culture, so its heritage and arts organisations need all the funds they can raise. Watch this space!
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Links to recordings of The Derby Ram. The following link is to a version credited to Keith Kendrick, Pete Castle, Roy Harris and Derrick Hale. I’m not familiar with them, but must be from hereabouts as they’re singing it in a Derby/Derbyshire accent, which although quite distinctive is barely recognised outside the area. You don’t hear the accent so much these days, so it’s good to have fragments of it preserved here.
The YouTube video includes the lyrics. As with all folksongs the words to The Derby Ram have mutated over the generations, and this version is a case in point. The mention of the Baseball Ground (at around two-and-a-half minutes into the song) references Derby County’s home soccer ground between 1895 and 1997. It could never have appeared in the original, traditional (18th century) version of this song, and doesn’t belong in 21st century versions either.
Ever since the first series of Gentleman Jack aired in 2019 we’d been planning to visit Shibden Hall, near Halifax in West Yorkshire, where the BBC / HBO television drama was filmed. With Covid restrictions eased we finally made it there earlier this month, in search of the ghost of Anne Lister. We were not disappointed.
Anne Lister (1791-1840), referred to contemptuously by her contemporaries as Gentleman Jack, inherited Shibden Hall in 1826. By the time of her death in 1840 she had left an indelible mark on it, and on LGBTQ history in the UK.
Her diaries, written between 1806 and 1840, are now reckoned to amount to more than five million words, spread across 7,722 pages. They – together with numerous letters, account books and other papers – are a goldmine for historians and writers seeking a better understanding of life in early nineteenth century Yorkshire.
The diaries show Anne Lister to be a complex, unconventional woman who refused to be bound by society’s expectations of a wealthy young lady. She dressed like a man and wore only black, managed her estate tenaciously, and carved out a place for herself in the male-dominated coalmining industry that flourished around Halifax, her local town.
Around one sixth of the diary entries are recorded in a baffling code devised by Lister herself. Employing a combination of symbols, numbers and Greek letters, she called it her crypt-hand. The secret text shows her to have been a self-confident lesbian who was determined to defy the social conventions of the day in order to live life and pursue relationships according to her own instincts and needs.
I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved of them in turn, my heart revolts from any love other than theirs.
Anne Lister’s Diary, 19th January 1821
Shibden Hall dates from 1420. It began as a timber-framed manor house, and first came into the possession of the Lister family in the early 17th century. The Hall’s current appearance owes much to Anne Lister, who set about redesigning and adding to it in the mid-1830s.
Under Lister’s direction a new three-storey Gothic tower, complete with library and modern water closets, was added to the west side of the original Hall. She also added an eastern wing including dressing rooms, a new kitchen and accommodation for staff. In Shibden’s central hall (the “Housebody”) she set out to impress by removing the Tudor ceiling and adding a gallery, a new staircase, a Victorian mock-Tudor fireplace and wooden panelling, all to re-create the effect of a medieval manor hall.
Taken as a whole the changes were intended to make Shibden a grander, more imposing building which would better demonstrate the Lister family’s wealth and status. In doing so Anne Lister projected an image of comfortable social respectability, while simultaneously creating a secluded space where she could pursue her sexual liaisons away from scrutiny by the repressive, male-dominated society in which she moved.
She had a series of female lovers, and one of them – Ann Walker (1803-1854) – would eventually become her live-in partner at the Hall. The couple secretly exchanged rings and took holy communion together at a local parish church on 10 February 1834. Although their union had no legal status, they considered themselves to be married.
Oh women, women! I am always taken up with some girl or other.
Anne Lister’s Diary, 18th June 1824
Ann Walker was not the true love of Anne Lister’s life – that title would have gone to Marianna Belcombe, who broke Lister’s heart when she married a wealthy male landowner (“The time, the manner, of her marriage,” Lister wrote in 1823, “Oh, how it broke the magic of my faith forever.”) However, some years later, Ann Walker – the wealthy heiress of a neighbouring estate – offered her the chance of a new beginning in a stable relationship, with the added bonus of access to the large fortune she had inherited.
Anne Lister’s ambitious renovations and extensions to Shibden Hall would have been largely unachievable were it not for her wife’s inheritance. In that sense, the Shibden Hall that we see today is – albeit by default – almost as much Ann Walker’s doing as it is Anne Lister’s.
To be honest, while being an interesting and enjoyable place to visit, Shibden Hall itself is far from exceptional. England boasts dozens of other buildings on a similar scale and of a similar vintage. Taken as a whole the Hall lacks architectural coherence, and presents instead as a messy hotchpotch of architectural styles and borrowed motifs. What makes Shibden Hall truly fascinating, however, is the story of the extraordinary woman who lived there in the first half of the nineteenth century.
To learn more about Anne Lister I thoroughly recommend watching Gentleman Jack if you haven’t already done so. Series 2, much delayed by the combined impact of Covid and the pregnancy of a key member of the cast, is nearing completion (a week’s filming at Shibden is scheduled later this month), and when it is broadcast, re-runs of the highly acclaimed first series can be confidently predicted.
If this post has aroused your curiosity about Anne Lister, Calderdale Council – which now runs Shibden Hall as a museum and visitor attraction – has published an informative video about her on YouTube. Presented by Helena Walker, who successfully decoded Lister’s secret diaries in the 1980s, it provides many more tantalising insights into Lister’s life both before and after her move to Shibden Hall in 1826, as well as her death in 1840 following an insect bite she received near Tbilisi at the foot of the Caucasian mountains.
And finally, I’d like to share a link to the Gentleman Jack theme tune. Regular readers of this blog will know that I enjoy folk music, and this song, written and performed by Belinda O’Hooley and her wife Heidi Tidow, is just the sort of thing I like. The folk duo wrote it to honour and celebrate the life of Anne Lister. Some time later the writer of the television series heard them perform it at a gig and decided it would perfectly complement her drama. The rest, as they say, is history. The YouTube video includes the song’s lyrics, making it possible to appreciate just how well Belinda and Heidi captured Anne Lister’s story. Enjoy!
My last post described a recent visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Some of the sculptures displayed there can be seen in traditional galleries while others are to be found in the open air, in a magnificent parkland landscape of hills, woodland, lakes and formal gardens. The undoubted highlight of our visit was Beyond, a temporary exhibition by celebrated Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos (b. 1971).
Joana Vasconcelos creates vibrant, often monumental sculpture, using fabric, needlework and crochet alongside everyday objects from saucepans to wheel hubs. She frequently uses items associated with domestic work and craft to comment from a feminist perspective on national and collective identity, cultural tradition and women’s roles in society
Sounds a bit wild and wacky, doesn’t it? I’m happy to say that the exhibition fully lived up to its billing. Joana Vasconcelos’ creations are amazing, a true delight in a year that’s been painfully grim.
There was an early indication of what to expect as we drove up to the car park: a multi-coloured rooster towering nine metres above startled visitors. It’s called Pop Galo [Pop Rooster] and is inspired by the Barcelos Rooster (aka the Portuguese Rooster.)
I’ve never been to Portugal and the legend of the Barcelos Rooster had therefore passed me by, but research for this post tells me that it’s regarded as the embodiment of the Portuguese spirit and love for life. Always vividly coloured, the Barcelos Rooster is a cultural icon and the unofficial symbol of the nation.
In Portugal the Barcelos Rooster is traditionally rendered as a colourful piece of pottery. Vasconcelos has fashioned hers from no fewer than 17,000 glazed tiles, creating a monumental and unforgettable artwork. Stunning!
And while we’re on the subject of monumental artwork, Solitário [Solitaire], is also pretty damned impressive. Standing seven metres high, it comprises golden car wheel rims topped with a huge diamond crafted from crystal whisky glasses, all fashioned into a stridently ostentatious engagement ring.
The website explains that Solitaire shouldn’t be seen as a blingy blot on the landscape but is, rather, a piece of caustic commentary on modern societal values. It says: “representing the stereotypical ambition of our society to acquire wealth and material possessions, the work unites symbols of luxury – cars, jewellery and alcohol – which bridge social classes.” So now we know!
Joana Vasconselos was born in Paris but lives in Lisbon, and trained initially as a jeweller before becoming a sculptor. The change of direction has enabled her to develop her craftsmanship on an altogether grander scale. In her world big is most definitely beautiful, whether outdoors or in.
And moving along to one of the indoor galleries, another of Vasconcelos’ startling pieces is Marilyn, a pair of oversized silver stilettos made entirely from hundreds of stainless steel saucepans.
The work’s title references Marilyn Monroe and is, in the words of the website, “[a commentary] on social conventions [highlighting] the division between women’s traditional domestic and contemporary public roles.”
Another work to be seen in one of the indoor galleries is Red Independent Heart #3, based on the Heart of Viana, a well-known Portuguese emblem symbolising life, love, friendship, honesty and generosity. It stands over three metres high and hangs from the ceiling, slowly rotating. As it turns, expressive and melancholy Portuguese fado songs play in the background, speaking of love, loss and the conflict between emotion and reason.
The piece is made entirely from red plastic cutlery which have been shaped and manipulated until its individual components are barely recognisable.
I’m not sure how I feel about plastic sculptures – there’s way too much plastic in the world already. But let’s give Vasconcelos the benefit of the doubt, and assume the thousands of items making up her Red Independent Heart are recycled cutlery that were otherwise destined for the nearest dump.
Plastic features in another of the works that make up the Beyond exhibition. At four metres high, Tutti Frutti dominates views of the landscape in which it sits. It’s made from plastic moulds of apples, pears, strawberries and croissants – all suspended from a stainless steel frame. Portuguese children apparently use these moulds at the beach to make a local version of sandcastles.
Tutti Frutti is one of those sculptures that can’t fail to raise a smile – who can resist such garishly whimsical frivolity? But beneath it all is a serious message about modern society’s tendency towards overindulgence and superficiality. The artist proclaims that the seductive moulds beguile and captivate unwary onlookers, who fail to spot the hollowness at their heart.
Of course cynics might argue that this is a metaphor for all of Joana Vasconcelos’ work, but I say “to hell with cynics!”
And finally, take a look at I’ll Be Your Mirror. Standing over three metres high and composed of countless elegantly-shaped mirrors, this work presents the classic Venetian mask as we’ve never imagined it before.
Masks have traditionally offered a hiding place, and never more so than in this year of Covid-19. We all wear masks at the supermarket these days, and behind each I see someone just like me, lying low and hiding from the virus. Mirrors, mirrors, everywhere…
Joana Vasconcelos’ work will not be to everyone’s taste. Indeed you may find it crass, pretentious or even banal – this reviewer for one was clearly unimpressed.
I will admit that her sculptures don’t magically reveal the meaning of life. But for god’s sake, they’re fun aren’t they? And don’t we all need a bit of fun in these dark, dark days? For me these monumental pieces are genuinely joyful, they have a “wow factor” and – if you so choose – they can make you think about stuff in a slightly different way.
If this is art, then give me more. Joana Vasconcelos, you are beyond amazing.
It’s been described as “Britain’s first and finest sculpture park,” an open-air gallery where works by many of the world’s most renowned sculptors are displayed in a magnificent parkland landscape of hills, woodland, lakes and formal gardens. It is a truly inspiring venture, and has without doubt been the highlight of our Covid year. Welcome to Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
Travel is one of our passions and we’ve always spent as much time as possible exploring other parts of the UK, and visiting countries on every continent bar Antarctica. However 2020 has been painfully different, courtesy of official travel restrictions and our own innate caution in the face of a cruel and unusual virus. This year we’ve not strayed far from home.
But there’s been one unexpected bonus of the Covid chaos: we’ve had both the time and the incentive to make day-trips to places within reasonable driving distance of Platypus Towers. Yorkshire Sculpture Park has been in our sights for several years, but we’ve never managed to squeeze in a visit. Finally, this year, we got around to it…and what a brilliant place it proved to be.
Yorkshire Sculpture Park opened in 1977 on the 500-acre (200 hectares), 18th-century Bretton Hall estate in West Yorkshire. The Palladian mansion at the heart of the estate dates from 1720. In 1948 its owner sold much of the estate to the local council, and a year later the mansion became a training college for teachers of art, music and drama.
Nearly 30 years later, in 1977, one of the lecturers at Bretton Hall College suggested siting sculpture in the estate’s grounds. The proposal was to open-up the Bretton estate landscape to the public for the first time, and provide artists with a canvas upon which to explore the challenges and opportunities inherent in mounting sculpture in a natural, open-air setting.
And thus was born Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The college is no more – the mansion is being converted into a luxury hotel – but the sculpture park goes from strength to strength.
In addition to some permanent installations, Yorkshire Sculpture Park has a programme of world-class, year-round temporary exhibitions. Many of the pieces are displayed in the open air, while others are spread across six indoor galleries.
Yorkshire Sculpture Park is an independent charitable trust and a registered museum. The website describes its mission in these terms:
YSP’s driving purpose for 40 years has been to ignite, nurture and sustain interest in and debate around contemporary art and sculpture, especially with those for whom art participation is not habitual or familiar. It enables open access to art, situations and ideas, and continues to re-evaluate and expand the approach to considering art’s role and relevance in society.
I’m all for widening participation, and our visit quickly showed us that Yorkshire Sculpture Park is working hard to deliver on its ambitions. It is a truly inspiring venture, and has without doubt been the highlight of our Covid year. In my next post we’ll take a look at a stunning temporary exhibition by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos. Meanwhile, here’s some other stuff that caught my eye when we visited in September.
Buddha, by Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002), is a monumental work standing over three metres high. It dates from around 2000 and is fashioned from a glittering mosaic of coloured tiles, glass, mirrors, and polished stones.
Saint Phalle was born in France, grew up in America and started out as a fashion model. She later studied theatre and acting in Paris, before giving it all up to become an artist. I’m tempted to say that if this is what a self-taught artist can achieve there’s still hope for me, but plainly I’m kidding myself. In my book, this is a decorative masterpiece.
And talking of mosaic masterpieces, what about Octopus by Italian artist Marialuisa Tadei (born 1962). Dating from 2011 and with a spread (leg-span?) of over five metres, it stands 1.3m high. The glorious beastseems to slither across the parkland, watching the visitors through twinkling, inscrutable eyes. It’s made from coloured, hand-cut glass affixed to a sturdy, stainless steel skeleton. Superb!
The third installation that particularly caught my eye is a rhinoceros rendered in the form of a carousel ride. It’s called However Incongruous, which sums it up nicely, a rhino wearing a yellow saddle apparently grazing contentedly on the lawn of an English country estate.
The Raqs Media Collective based its 2011 work on Albrecht Dürer’s 1515 woodcut of a rhino. The German painter and printmaker generated his creation from descriptions alone, without ever having seen the animal in the flesh. I wonder what he would have made of the Collective’s three dimensional reinterpretation of his woodcut?
The final work I want to feature on this whistle-stop tour is Litter by British artist Leo Fitzmaurice (born 1963). Its intentions are noble, to highlight the excessive debris and waste mankind discards on a daily basis. The Park’s website describes it as “a playful interpretation of rubbish bags with their handles tied in such a way that at a glance could be rabbits grazing.”
However what really made me chuckle – and shake my head sadly at the same time – was that amongst the enamelled, cast bronze rubbish bags was a real plastic bag, presumably discarded by a careless visitor. You can see it clearly in the photo above. Don’t they say that life imitates art?
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So there we have it, a brief introduction to Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Having finally – some 40 years too late – made its acquaintance, I know we will be frequent visitors in the future. We barely scratched the surface of the collection this time, and are looking forward to finding some more masterpieces scattered throughout the picturesque pastureland, woods and trees, as well as re-visiting a few old friends.
I wonder if there will still be plastic bag lurking amongst the Litter when we next pay Yorkshire Sculpture Park a visit?