Here are a few more photographs we took on our visit to The Eden Project last week. This time we present some of the more unusual / abstract / eccentric images we came home with. Hope that they inspire you!
Terracotta relief sculpture in The Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum in London houses one of the world’s great collections on the living world but it is also one the nation’s truly amazing buildings. Designed by Alfred Waterhouse (1830 – 1905), the Museum is like a Romanesque Cathedral to Science with a touch of Victorian railway station thrown in. Waterhouse’s design is not only striking in terms of style but also for its innovative use of materials, with the entire building being clad in fired terracotta tiles in an interesting buff and blue colour scheme. The extravagant, nature-inspired decoration was also produced in terracotta with huge numbers of sculptures and sculptural reliefs both inside and out.
I studied art at a time when Modernism was still very much the dominant force in architecture. I seem to remember that a building like the Natural History Museum was not so much attacked in discussions of good architecture (except by implication), it more just totally ignored; but I loved the building the first time I saw it and love it even more today.
These images are just a small selection of the reliefs and other decorations to be found in just the main hall of the building; the same decorative scheme is carried on throughout the building and can be the basis of an interesting museum trip all on their own.
Each piece of decoration was drawn by Waterhouse himself, then checked for scientific accuracy by Richard Owen, the museum’s director, then sent to a sculptor for modelling in clay before being cast and fired.
The great sculpture of Charles Darwin by Sir Joseph Boehm now commands the grand staircase.
Alex and I went to visit Cornwall’s world-renowned Eden Project last weekend. This was our first visit for a couple of years and it was interesting to see how the various parts of the site are developing. “Eden” is marketed very much as an experience in horticultural education (and there is much of interest to be learned there) but I always find my experience of it is more as a work of art.
Art is certainly important to the creators of Eden (there are sculptures to be found everywhere) but the entire experience seems to be primarily an aesthetic one for me.
Most interesting has been seeing the changes in the developing plantings over the years. The Tropical Biome (as the giant greenhouses are named) seemed mature from very early in its life but I can recall when the Warm-Temperate Biome was a rather barren affair with little plants struggling to be interesting. Now this area has matured into a very pleasant space with a warm, calm feel.
Only some areas of the outside plantings now leave me feeling a bit underwhelmed. This is partly a lack of any mature trees but is also the problem of some mass plantings looking a bit like the sort of horticulture found around municipal car parks. Another serious issue is where too many different displays have been packed into too small an area, so that they are out of scale with the grandness of the architecture.
I have always been fascinated by geological specimens. They offer me so much inspiration in their form, colour and pattern and give up a glimpse of how the big, complex world is built out the intersection of simple, deterministic rules and chaotic complexity.
Sadly, being “into crystals” nowadays tends to mean something anti-scientific and disturbingly irrational, which I find both troubling and ridiculous. For me they are just objects that display the structure of our world at a visible scale.
Many of the lessons about structure that one can learn from (these large-scale) minerals suggest direct parallels with the structure of living things, though living structures (like the majority of minerals) have to be viewed under a microscope. This is because growth, in both cases, proceeds from simple rules and constraints at a local level interacting with degrees of randomness on a larger scale.
I see many parallels between mineral specimens and my own work. I too am seeking an intersection of order and complexity; crisp control meeting happily with chance.
This post is just about the visual qualities of these rocks and I have ignored the matter of identifying them. This, together with the science of how they are created is fascinating field in itself. These samples were all photographed at The Natural History Museum in London. A visit there (or to your own local geological collection) will provide a fascinating day out and lots of inspiration.
Many of the comments I receive when I speak to people about my work are about colour and the colour choices I make.
The most common question by far must be “what is your favourite colour?” and people are always seem surprised when I say that I do not have one. I believe that having favourites is dangerous for someone who works with colour as it is likely to restrict the choices you make; if you have favourites it means that you also have non-favourites.
Sadly for me, having no favourites does not mean that I can escape from having habits and habit can all too easily dominate an artist’s colour choices.
The workings of colour, both from a technical and a psychological point of view is a complex subject but here are a few of my little rules of thumb.
1) How well colour-combinations work depends on context, for instance colours that look beautiful in a landscape would often look very dull if applied tone-for-tone to a small object.
The great American artist and educator Hans Hofmann taught generations of young artists that no colour exists independent of its neighbours; that the effect of a colour, both perceptually and emotionally, is determined by the colours it is placed next to.
2) When looking at objects close-up, our eyes (and our minds) find it hard to distinguish colour as a completely separate experience from tone and texture. A flat area of colour is perceived very differently from an area where that colour has tonal variation, particularly rhythmical tonal variation.
3) For a safe rule when creating colour schemes, use contrasting colours of similar tone or use closely related colours with contrasting tone.
4) Beware safe rules – Harmonious colours are calm and satisfying but nothing excites like an unexpected combination.
5) Take risks – You will sometimes end up with a colour disaster but it is the secret to avoiding repeating yourself endlessly. (Amazingly however, I have found that no matter how weird the colours I use, it is likely that someone, somewhere will like them!)
6) Colourful is not the same as bright. Sometimes very subdued schemes can yield the most interesting effects.
7) While there are lots of useful guidelines, the truth is that if you want to have a chance of really surprising yourself – there are no rules at all!
For anyone interested in learning more about colour in art I recommend the WebExhibits.org pages on Colour, Vision and Art
When Alex and I went to London last week we decided that we were going to try and see some different kinds of museum work, apart from the textiles, Asian art, etc., that we usually look at. So Alex went to try and find a room in the V&A that he had not really appreciated before, where he would really study the objects and take a few photographs.
Alex chose a room of displaying small gold or silver boxes in one of the Rosalind and Arthur Gilbert Galleries. These gem-studded boxes are clearly very precious and all showed evidence of the highest quality workmanship.
One of the most stunning aspects of that part of the V&A is the stunning view over the Madejski courtyard in the centre of the museum.
When you love museums and visit them regularly, you tend to accumulate a list of favourites that you check out each time as old friends. With large National museums there are also lots of rooms that you wander through without really paying so much attention; maybe because you do not see a connection between your particular interests and the type of artefacts on display. This is particularly true of places like the V&A, where the range of material is huge and much of it consists of very specialised collections.
The work I produce is mostly small and intricate so I would have expected to feel a natural appreciation for this type of very detailed work, yet I confess that I find some of it a little over-fussy. I cannot help feeling that setting off all that very fine detail against some empty spaces would allow the designs to “breathe” a bit better.
Next time you visit a favourite museum, make sure to have a close look at some very different objects!
The pottery horses of the Tang dynasty are among the most iconic objects in all Chinese art. Fired to fairly low earthenware temperatures and decorated using simple lead glazes, often in three colours (san-cai); these beautiful objects were essential grave goods for anyone with pretensions to status and produced in very large numbers.
Examples vary greatly in quality and size and smaller, cruder examples can still be bought for modest sums by collectors today. The large examples from high status tombs are, of course, much less common and stand among the highest examples of the sculptor’s art anywhere. Two examples in the British Museum in London are astounding for the way the “essence of horse” has been abstracted from the maker’s knowledge of real animals, especially in the modelling of the heads.
Even in the best examples, the bodies of these horses are generally very simply modelled with all the careful observation and formal invention devoted to the heads; so much so that the heads can sometimes seem a mismatch for the bodies they are attached to.
Modelling horses in clay was already an ancient tradition by the Tang dynasty (618 – 906AD). It is interesting to compare them to the horses found with the Terracotta Warriors dating from 800 to 1000 years earlier.
I am not in any sense a horse lover but I never fail to appreciate just how sensitive the artist’s reaction to these animals was.
Sadly, the Tang horse has become a bit of a cliché, with endless modern copies, often of poor quality. Perhaps that is why Chinese today do not value them as highly as they do more modern Ming and Qing artefacts; or perhaps it is because refined surface decoration counts much more than form for Chinese connoisseurs. This is a subject that Alex and I plan to expand on in a later post.