More Eden

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!

The roof of the education centre

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The Sculpture of Nature

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.

Romanesque Cathedral crossed with a railway station - A Temple of Science

Romanesque Cathedral crossed with a railway station – A Temple of Science

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.

Waterhouse's Museum is as far from Modernism as you can get

Waterhouse’s Museum is as far from Modernism as you can get

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.

Birds at the bottom of the grand staircase

Birds at the bottom of the grand staircase

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.

A canine - probably a domestic dog

A canine – probably a domestic dog

The great sculpture of Charles Darwin by Sir Joseph Boehm now commands the grand staircase.

The greatest figure in biology looking over the main hall

The greatest figure in biology looking over the main hall

A ram's head decorating the base of a main pillar

A ram’s head decorating the base of a main pillar

A feline

A feline with her young

Another bird

Another bird

Darwin

Darwin

For further information see Natural History Museum – History and Architecture
 and the RIBA Natural History Museum pages
or make a trip to see the museum yourself.

Gardens of Eden

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.

The iconic Eden domes

The iconic Eden domes

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.

The Eden Project is situated in a disused china-clay pit

The Eden Project is situated in a disused china-clay pit

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.

The Tropical Biome at Eden

The Tropical Biome at Eden

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.

Nice autumn colour but there is still a great lack of mature trees

Nice autumn colour but there is still a great lack of mature trees

Beautiful Rocks

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.

Order and randomness in a beautiful relationship

Order and randomness in a beautiful relationship

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.

Crystalline minerals display a history of their growth

Crystalline minerals display a history of their growth

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.

The growth of one type of mineral crystal within another

Here the growth of one type of mineral crystal within another looks very similar to bacterial or algal growth seen under a microscope

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.

Texture, colour and the hints of hidden order in minerals all inspire me

Texture, colour and the hints of hidden order in minerals all inspire me

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.

Rules of Colour

Many of the comments I receive when I speak to people about my work are about colour and the colour choices I make.

The same basic brooch using two different colour schemes

The same basic brooch using two different colour schemes

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.

I try to be open to every possible colour combination

I try to be open to every possible colour combination

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.

Apparently, I have a habit of resorting to rust reds and burnt oranges

Apparently, I have a habit of resorting to rust reds and burnt oranges

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 colours of a pretty landscape are usually very subdued

The colours of a pretty landscape are usually very subdued

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.

Equinox - Hans Hofmann - UC Berkeley, Berkeley Art Museum

Equinox – Hans Hofmann – UC Berkeley, Berkeley Art Museum

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.

This photograph is virtually monochromatic but we see it as attractively coloured

This photograph is virtually monochromatic but we see the colour as attractive because of the rhythmic tonal variations

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.

The black areas here give sparkle but break they break the easy colour rules

The black areas here give sparkle but they break the easy colour rules

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.

This brooch used very subdued, even dull colours but was much praised

This brooch used very subdued, even dull colours but the scheme received lots of praise

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

Pretty Boxes

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.

Lots of shiny diamonds but I would have allowed more of the beautiful blue enamel work to show

Lots of shiny diamonds but we both would have allowed more of the beautiful blue enamel work to show

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.

Miniature decoration with a musical theme

Miniature decoration with a musical theme

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.

Morning sunlight filtering into the Madejski courtyard

Morning sunlight filtering into the Madejski courtyard

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.

This is my favourite. Not sure if the centre is Japanese metalwork or a copy

This is my favourite. Not sure if the centre is Japanese metalwork or a copy

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.

Serious bling but I think that some less textured areas would set off the stones better

Really serious “bling” but I think that some less textured areas would set off the stones better

Nice moss agate but I am less sure about the metalwork on the lid

Nice moss agate but I am less sure about the metalwork on the lid

Really tiny mosaic work!

Really tiny mosaic work!

Next time you visit a favourite museum, make sure to have a close look at some very different objects!

Tang Horses

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.

Tang dynasty horse in the British Museum

Tang dynasty horse in the British Museum

Head of the British Museum horse above

Head of the British Museum horse above

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.

Another Tang horse in the British Museum

Another Tang horse in the British Museum

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.

Tang horse in the Shanghai Museum

Tang horse in the Shanghai Museum

Head of the Shanghai Museum horse

Head of the Shanghai Museum horse

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.

Horses of the Terracotta Army (circa 206 BCE)

Horses of the Terracotta Army (circa 206 BCE)

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.

A fine example in the V&A Museum in London

A fine example in the V&A Museum in London

A powerful beast from the Imperial Collection in Beijing

A powerful beast from the Imperial Collection in Beijing

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.

A modern "replica" of a Tang horse in an interior design store

A modern “replica” of a Tang horse in an interior design store