The dream of flight-to soar into space through one s own volition-is a basic human instinct. While it provides a means of escape from the trials of everyday life, there is also something spiritual in the quest to defy gravity and look down serenely on the world from above. Yet the skies have long been seen as divine territory, ruled by the gods, and we attempt to join them at our peril. Perhaps a safer course is to explore the subject through artists eyes, and this summer, two exhibitions-at Compton Verney and Tatton Park-have risen to the challenge of representing flight.
Salutary depictions of Phaethon and Icarus introduce Compton Verneyshow. With all the hubris of young men in fast cars, these Greek mythological figures steered too recklessly close to the sun, lost control and fell to earth. In Genesis, Jacob was content to dream on stony ground of the angels of God ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. Only the blessed could join them and Christian art is replete with images of glorious liftoffs by Christ, Mary and the saints after death, not to mention-in the case of Francis of Assisi and Joseph of Cupertino, patron saint of aviators-miraculous levitations while still alive.
From the sixteenth century, artists could create illusory bird s-eye views of towns, country estates and battlefields by utilising the mathematical skills involved in surveying maps and drawing perspective. Leonardo da Vinci famously attempted to replicate the aerodynamics of birds wings in assorted machines. But with the ascent of the Montgolfier brothers hot-air balloon in 1783, the actual sensation of flight was experienced for the first time. In September 1785, on a solo trip in Lunardi s balloon from Chester, Thomas Baldwin made drawings that were engraved and published in Airopaidia (1786). Tracing his course over the mouth of the Mersey and including the clouds which interrupted his view of the land below, they constitute the first illustrations ever made of the earth from midair.
Aerial photography is also covered at Compton Verney, pioneered by Nadar from a tethered balloon on the outskirts of Paris in 1858. Cameras were later attached to unmanned balloons, kites, rockets and even pigeons, but they came into their own with the invention of the aeroplane, especially for military reconnaissance. Following Bleriot s cross-Channel flight of 1909, air shows and air races became hugely popular, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to watch magnificent men and women in their flying machines. Spectacular feats were recorded in newsreels and the exploits of First World War fighter pilots romanticised in feature films-the American magnate and aircraft fanatic Howard Hughes produced Hell s Angels (1930), starring Jean Harlow as the love object of two British brothers in the Royal Flying Corps.
Twentieth-century artists-notably the Italian Futurists, who were obsessed with speed-used air travel to enlarge the dimensions of their vision of the world. Aerial views were rendered abstract, the earthsurface detail too distanced for precise meaning. From ground level, planes themselves could become will-o -the-wisps, though the whole sky acquired a new dynamic through their vapour trails or, on wartime nights, shafts of searchlight and anti-aircraft fire. Among the contemporary works on display, Layla Curtis s video, Sky Drawings (Night, Day) records 24 hours of aircraft movements overhead in one flight path, their fugitive traces suggestive of today s global mobility. And while outer space is represented at Compton Verney with photographs from the Hubble telescope, among the site-specific films and installations commissioned for Tatton s Parkthird Biennial there is a crash-landed flying saucer by Dinu Li.
If you have been following Neil MacGregor s recent Shakespeare s Restless World programmes on BBC Radio 4, then the latest exhibition in the Round Reading Room at the British Museum is the show for you. Presented in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of the World Shakespeare Festival, it explores London through Shakespeare s plays, brought to life in texts, performance and an extraordinary array of objects. Sometimes the smallest have great evocative power, such as the gold coin commemorating the assassination of Julius Caesar, while a dagger retrieved from the Thames confirms that the strong current of violence and plotting in the histories and tragedies also reflected realities closer to home.
No exhibition could be more fitting than the spectacular array of diamonds on show this summer at Buckingham Palace. The mineral itself has all the qualities-endurance and longevity, purity and value-we associate with the Queen in the year of her Diamond Jubilee. As the only previous British monarch to achieve this feat, Queen Victoria accumulated a magnificent cache during a reign which saw the mines of India and Brazil augmented by the great diamond fields of South Africa. Star pieces range from the necklace and earrings created for her by Garrard in 1858, and worn by all subsequent British queens at their coronations, to the miniature crown she favoured for the last 30 years of her life on account of its lightness, designed to be set over the veil she adopted after the death of Prince Albert.
While the attention of the world is on London and the Olympics, the capital s museums and art galleries offer some escape from the hullabaloo. Tate Britain has devised a calmly contemplative show of photographs of the capital made by foreign photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eve Arnold, in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Some came as refugees, others as tourists or photojournalists. The main focus is on people, capturing extremes of wealth and poverty, youth and old age, as well as the city s changing mores and growing cultural diversity. Another London is at Tate Britain, Millbank, SW1 (020-78878888; www.tate.org.uk) until September 16; admission, ?10
I explore two of Wales s finest houses-a sixteenth-century castle and a seventeenth-century Jacobean mansion-both of which have been extensively refurbished by their current owners.
As a generalisation, Wales has not been kind to its legacy of historic country houses. The demolition rate in the past century has been even higher than in other parts of the UK, and there is often a sense (hat both in local government and the population at large there is indifference verging on active hostility towards what survives. This is likely to be the case even where it is a Welshman who is attempting to save a threatened building, so it is a brave person indeed who ventures on such a project. This is the story of three such conservation heroes or rather, one hero and two heroines.
The extraordinary saga of how Peter Welford and Judy Corbett came to acquire and restore Gwydir Castle is amusingly and movingly told by Judy in her book Castles in (he Ah. As young idealists Peter an art-history graduate from England, Judy a professional bookbinder they conceived a dream of finding a deserving historic property in north Wales, where Judy had been brought up on a hill farm; preferably one that was neglected but essentially unspoilt. This in itself proved well-nigh impossible, as the houses they tracked down had either been ruined by misguided modernisation or else belonged to avaricious farmers who named ludicrously inflated prices. As optimism faded they serendipitously found themselves outside the gates of Gwydir Castle, across the Conwy River from the town of I Llanrwst. The seat of the Wynn family from the fifteenth century, and itself predominantly sixteenth century, it fitted the couplestrict criteria that it must be pre-1670 and have had a Royalist allegiance in the Civil War.
Having grown in the seventeenth century and shrunk back to its 1580s state in 181 6, the house and its historic contents were sold in 1921. The sale resulted in two complete panelled rooms being sold to William Randolph Hearst and shipped off to the US, so they at least escaped being incinerated in serious fires that gutted the Solar Tower and west wing in the following years.
By the time the young hopefuls turned up in 1993, the place was in a shocking state, enveloped in ivy and creeper and riddled with wet and dry rot. In the absence of the owner, the publican tenant ran a nightclub and rowdy parties were staged, while one wing functioned as a makeshift recording studio. Peter and Judy decided that their lifework must be to rescue and restore Gwydir, at whatever personal hardship and sacrifice that might require. They had little money, and the National Trust had already declined to take the place on for lack of the funds that would be involved. Nothing daunted, Peter and Judy managed to acquire it in 1994 and began the slow process of nursing it back to health, with the help of a few friends and local stalwarts. The results, nearly 20 years on, are remarkable and heartwarming. Most exciting lias been the reacquisition of the splendid 1640s dining-room panelling, which had been sitting unwanted in packing cases in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York. It still remains, however, to track down the vanished panelling of the Solar Hall; Peter and Judy would be thrilled to hear of any new leads.
Every bit as improbable as the Gwydir saga is the saving of Plas Teg by the redoubtable Cornelia Bayley. The most important Jacobean mansion in Wales, it had been built around 1610 by Sir John Trevor. His connections at the English court may account for the fact that this commanding, four-towered symmetrical pile shows clear signs of the influence of the great Robert Smythson, architect of such houses as Hardwick and Wollaton, and has nothing in common with local north Welsh traditions. So it was perhaps not so inappropriate that it should have been saved by a determined Londoner, who until she bought it in 1986 had a career buying and selling antiques, repairing fabrics and tapestries for other dealers and decorators, and working for Colefax and Fowler. As well as huge flair, therefore, she had a very useful combination of experience and practical expertise, which was just as well, since she found Plas Teg derelict, with its chimneypieces, doors and even flagstone floors stolen. Mercifully, the great carved staircase, the finest of its period in Wales, had survived, albeit smothered in black paint. Having redone the roof and put the building back into sound physical shape, with the help of a grant from the Welsh heritage agency CADW, she set about furnishing the interiors. This was actually less of a challenge, since to say that Cornelia is a keen collector is a considerable understatement. She collects many different things, including ceramics, vintage clothes and kitchenware, but her particular passion is the Empire period, and the house is now full of early-nineteenth-century neoclassical pieces. Almost all the many paintings on display are copies, but they fill the acres of wall space very satisfactorily.
Words and Pictures
Toby Musqrave, photoqraphs by Clay Perry (Thames & Hudson, ?38)
This sumptuous book-the result of a fruitful collaboration between photographer Clay Perry and garden historian Toby Musgrave-contains exquisite full-page photographs of a huge variety of heritage cultivars, beautifully composed against dark backgrounds in the manner of old-master paintings. While the photographs draw you in, the text keeps you intrigued, providing well-researched histories of each plant, and lists of some of the cultivars that can still be grown today. We are introduced to such wonderfully named varieties as the Caseknife French bean and the Careless gooseberry; we learn that the cauliflower may have originated in Cyprus, and that the mulberry tree, introduced by the Romans, can live for as long as 600 years. The focus of the text is on the general history of each plant rather than on the heritage cultivars themselves, but as chef Raymond Blanc writes in his introduction,
heritage variety comes with a story, and that alone has value.
This is a book for anyone curious about fruit and vegetables, and for those already growing their own who want to move away from standardised F1 hybrids and keep some of these exciting varieties alive.
MEDITERRANEAN LANDSCAPE DESIGN: Vernacular Contemporary Louisa Jones, photographs by Clive Nichols (Thames & Hudson, ?32)
Louisa Jones is at the pinnacle of Mediterranean garden writing and the momentous project of creating this engaging book has seen her travel far and wide in search of great gardens and landscapes.
Throughout, Clive Nicholswonderful photography captures the landscape, in all its astonishing variety and beauty, with a unique eye. I would have preferred the book s layout to travel through one country at a time, since leaping from the landscape of Provence to Majorca and then over to Greece is disconcerting if one is familiar with the differences. But that is a matter of personal taste, and when one is presented with such beautiful images it is a passing gripe. There are some marvellous new gardens and subtle architecture here, as well as examples, such as Ninfa, that one would expect, a combination that makes this book well worth having. Louisa s erudite text is informative and revealing; particularly enjoyable is the entry on Argentario in Tuscany, a fabulous house by Lazzarini Pickering floating in a landscape created by Paolo Pejrone. Now that really is the fusion of landscape and architecture at its current and vernacular finest.
COUNTRY HOUSE LIFE: A Century in Photographs Elizabeth Drury and Francesca Scoones (National Trust Books, ?14.99)
A photograph is a moment in time made visible… It evokes the past in a way that is more immediate and more powerful than words, writes social historian Elizabeth Drury in her introduction. She has brought together some 250 images that illustrate aspects of life in Britain s historic houses-at least, those now cared for by the National Trust-between 1860 and 1940, and in a fitting testament to her comment, this carefully curated collection requires little more than a page or two of explanation per chapter, leaving all the more space for the set pieces and more candid shots that make up the book. It takes some considerable skill to weave a coherent and engaging narrative from such a wealth of material, but whether in a solemn-faced portrait of the servants at Ashridge; a sweeping shot of the marchioness of Bristol, in full coronation robes, at a children s party at Ickworth to mark George V s coronation in 1911; or a snapshot of Winston Churchill building a garden wall at Chart-well, cigar in place, a lost world is made altogether tangible.
MARK BRAZIER-JONES Charlotte and Peter Fiell (Fiell, ?39.95)
If the arcane phrase performance welding still strikes a clashing chord in the memory, then perhaps, in the far-off late days of punk, you once spent the evening in an illegal club watching the sparks fly as hip young furniture makers Tom Dixon and Mark Brazier-Jones showed off their skills. Calling themselves Creative Salvage, they created a small, though certainly not quiet revolution in the design world. Foraging for materials in skips and scrapyards, they assembled weird, occasionally beautiful chairs and tables; pieces that challenged the sleek ethos of the modern movement. Later Dixon would be wooed by Habitat, but Brazier-Jones-influenced by the sophisticated eye and more historical sensibility of Andre Dubreuil, eminence grise of Eighties alternative design-continued to make ever more complex limited-edition pieces. With its sci-fi imagery of wings and claw feet, polished or patinated surfaces and gaudy upholstery, Brazier-Jones s distinctive art furniture’seems perfectly fitted to the rock-star lifestyle. But, as this book demonstrates, he creates his pieces in an ancient barn with just a few assistants. These days, examples of his work can be seen in museum collections and come up at auctions of twentieth-century design classics. This book, with its illustrated checklist of pieces, is a welcome addition.
Wide choice of windows metro style from the manufacturer