Treasures of the British Library

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Leonardo da Vinci – Codax Arundel notebook. (Photo Credit: British Library)

Over the years I’ve noticed that visiting large galleries or cultural sites doesn’t always work for me unless they can be done in bite sized chunks.  I don’t think that this is because of a short attention span but more that I get a bit punch drunk and desensitised to what’s in front of me.  It can be hard for example in an art gallery to grasp the sheer magnitude of what’s in front of you when there can be so much stuff to see.  There is often also a real difficulty in being able to stop and take it in as there is a constant stream of people wanting to stand in the same spot.

Smaller, well curated selections then I think is the best way to really take something in and it also gives greater time to reflect on what you have actually seen as you go through the rest of your day doing something else.

Yesterday I was down in London and had an hour or so to kill before meeting up with friends so I wandered the 5 mins or so from Kings Cross to the British Library.  Now despite having walked past it countless times it was only very recently that I realised that sections of the library are open to mere mortals like me, I was always under the impression that it was some sort of exclusive club the membership of which would not be open to me.

My first dalliance came just before Christmas when I went to see the Alice in Wonderland exhibition (which is still on and is ace by the way) but this second time I wanted to go and see what I’d call ‘The Greatest Hits of the Written Word”.  Now I was expecting the gallery to be rammed and not be able to see anything but late on a Monday afternoon when I visited there were maybe 6-8 people looking at the 200 or so exhibits and oh my what exhibits they were.  I genuinely felt moved being in this room surrounded by the evidence of the staggering intellectual and historical weight of The Word !

In well curated sections I was able to closely see The Magna Carta (and next to it the papal decree declaring it illegal), The Gutenberg Bible, The Lindisfarne Gospels, Codex Sinaiticus, Diamond Sutra (the world’s earliest dated printed book), Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, classics of British literature – Dickens, Bronte, Hardy, Wilde etc, A letter written by Nelson on the morning of the Battle of Trafalgar, Handel’s Messiah, handwritten lyrics by the Beatles and various maps and pictures, a celestial globe and many more astonishing rare pieces of print.

It really is a quite incredible room, that these treasures are freely on display should be celebrated and shouted from the rooftops.  Next time you are heading in or out of London from the North, just give yourself a bit more time for your train and pop along.  I can’t think of a more astonishing and mind boggling place to spend an hour.

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The Gutenberg Bible (Photo Credit: British Library)

 

XmasPhotoHunt – Gallery

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There is not much analysis to do on our Xmas Photo Hunt, it was simply a bit a fun.  The kids picked 12 themes for 12 days of Christmas, each theme had a sort of link to Christmas but could be interpreted in any way you want.  Not surprisingly there were a lot of Christmas themed photos but also plenty of different approaches taken as well.  I wasn’t sure with it being a busy family time if people would play along but plenty of people kept me busy with a steady stream of photos coming in.

Initially I was going to try and keep track of how each person was doing in getting all 12 but I soon gave up on that idea and left it up to the sender to work out how they were doing.  A few people definitely got all 12 and it was clear there were a few ‘finishers’ out there but others put in anywhere between 1 and 11.  Either way it was fine with me as it added a bit of fun and social media togetherness across the holidays.

The 12 themes were: Pretty, Sign, Travel, Crack, Together, Enjoy, Relax, Story, Kind, Wrap, Escape, Peace.  Have a look at the gallery and see if you can work out the various interpretations.  I’ve set the gallery to random so each time you have a look the gallery will be a slightly different order enabling you to get a slightly different perspective each time.  As always huge thanks for getting involved and taking part.  I’m not sure when or if the next photo challenge will be – follow me on twitter @ianstreet67 to find out.  Hope everyone has a great 2016.

The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

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I’ve been fortunate to read some really good books during 2015 and certainly it’s been a good year for the boysbookclub.  Whilst I always focus my reading on whatever the book club selection is that month I do try to squeeze in other books and forms as well.  Graphic novels provide a perfect way to do this as they don’t necessarily take a long time and it’s a format that I’m really growing to appreciate.  Jared and Oliver at OK Comics have been guiding me into a world that I know very little about recommending titles and opening my eyes to the creativity and intelligence of the graphic novel.

The latest book they suggested to me was The Sculptor by Scott McCloud, which is undoubtedly one of the best things I’ve read this year.  It’s a 500 page turner of a graphic novel with real depth and emotion throughout that lived long in my memory and raises many fundamental questions on my (our) approach to life, the lives we lead and what we leave behind.  These hugely powerful themes are intertwined around a powerful love story, a Faustian pact, a portrait of young urban life, an artistic journey, mortality, aspiration, the commercial art world and mental health.

The Sculptor is brilliantly enjoyable as you are reading it but like the very best novels it seeps into the consciousness after you have finished, leaving little hooks in your mind that you find yourself musing and thinking about in moments of quite reflection long after you have turned the final page.

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The novel essentially centres on the life of David Smith, a young sculptor who found fame and patronage early in life but is now down on his luck, working in a fast food restaurant, creatively unproductive, frustrated that his life and art appears to be going nowhere.  Whilst drinking in a bar death (in the shape of his deceased uncle) sits with him and offers him a Faustian pact.  He will give David the ability to create and sculpt anything that he can imagine out of his bare hands but if he accepts the deal he will only have 200 days before death will take him.  Death also shows David an image of his life should he not choose to accept it, what he shows is a good life, working in a community college, teaching art, a wife and family, the type of life that most of us either want or settle for.

Here lies one of the first of the underlying themes of the book, almost all of us have dreams and aspirations, to create something, to leave our mark, to be remembered.  For most of us this does not happen and for David he is faced with a choice of essentially a good life or a short life that realises his creative ambitions.  David accepts the deal with Death but it still leaves him struggling with how to unleash his creativity and sculpt something that will realise his ambitions and leave a permanent legacy after he has gone.

What David has not considered is the strange twists that life can deliver and like all of us David never knows when love might strike.  A surreal chance encounter sees David falling madly in love with Meg, a jobbing actor and performance artist.  David is forbidden by death to tell anyone including Meg of the deal that he has made so he divides his time spending as much time as he can with Meg and then during the night working on his art trying harness his power to create his legacy.

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Meg and David’s fast developing relationship is beautifully captured and I really felt for the characters and had a powerful pang in my chest knowing what was going to happen to David.  Meg has a spontaneity to her which is instantly likeable compared to David’s intense over-worthiness but each character realises that together they are better people than they are apart.

The days pass and the David’s destiny is approaching, his art is still not the hit he wants and in his interaction with agents, galleries and patrons the book shines a light on the contemporary art world and makes you question who decides what is good art.  In the end David physically sculpts the world around him, eschewing the art world and leaving his work to be discovered in the mornings after night time creative sessions.  In doing so he brings the attention of the law enforcement agencies down on him as they try to uncover who is doing this.  Echoes here of graffiti artists and the question of whether it’s vandalism or art.

As I was reading the book I really wanted to know what was going to happen and was genuinely gripped.  Would David create his legacy, was Death going to insist on the pact, what was going to happen to David and Meg’s relationship, would David tell Meg about the pact.  I’m not going to reveal here what happens but the story is brought to it’s conclusion with a really powerful emotional twist.

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As I don’t really know much about the graphic medium I’m not familiar with the names of authors so Scott McCloud doesn’t mean anything to me but apparently he’s a bit of a big deal in the comic world, regarded as one of the smartest minds operating in the field and renowned as a theorist on all things comic.  Perhaps though as McCloud himself hits middle age he has been musing on his own legacy and in doing so it has driven him to create this masterpiece.  Does the protagonist of the novel reflect McCloud’s own artist journey in completing his first large fictional narrative ?

The Sculptor was five years in the making and it’s painstaking thoughtful creation left a profound mark on me.  It is often said that the best art is a mirror to your own life and experience and this brilliant page turner left me lingering on my own life, mortality and life’s purpose.  Powerful stuff, and I’d urge you to read it.

 

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XmasPhotoHunt

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We have been doing our Photofun ideas for a few years now and the idea is simple – my kids set a theme, I publicise through twitter and people tweet their interpretations which I then put together into a blog gallery.  This started during the summer holidays but we have tended to do it whenever their is a holiday period and also across the odd weekend.  It’s proved a really fun thing to do and to have people all over the place, young and old take part.

We’ve not done anything since the summer and a few people have been asking if we are going to do anything for the Christmas holidays.  We’ve had a little chat and come up with something a little different – the 12 days of Christmas photo hunt.

Many people break up for the holidays this weekend so we thought that we’d do a slightly different photo challenge.  This time we are setting you a 12 days of Christmas hunt and you have till 31 December to get all the photos.  You need to find an interpretation for each of the 12 days across the holiday period but you can send them in one at a time or together.  I’ll then piece them all together hopefully.

As always it would be great if you join in, spread the word and get family members and friends young and old to get hunting and snapping.  Send the pics to me on twitter @ianstreet67 and hashtag them #xmasphotohunt

The kids have agreed the following 12 themes:

  • Pretty
  • Sign
  • Travel
  • Crack
  • Together
  • Enjoy
  • Relax
  • Story
  • Kind
  • Wrap
  • Escape
  • Peace

Feel free to interpret any way you want, be creative and have fun. We can’t wait to see what you come up with.

 

 

 

 

 

Banksy paints Steve Jobs

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I’ve always found graffiti fascinating: who paints it, why, what are they trying to express, do I understand it, is there a reason why they have put it where they have, is it any good, is it art, does it say anything? are just a few of the questions that always spring to mind when I see some.  In fact I think I often pay far more attention and think about it more than any piece of art that I see installed in a gallery.

Much of this was brilliantly explained in the BB4 documentary ‘A Brief History of Graffiti’ which I found utterly captivating and informative.  In in Dr Richard Clay goes in search of what it is that has made people scribble and scratch mementoes of our lives for more than 30,000 years. From the prehistoric cave paintings of Burgundy in France, through gladiatorial fan worship in Roman Lyons to the messages left on the walls of Germany’s Reichstag in 1945 by triumphant Soviet troops, time and again people have wanted to leave a permanent record of our existence for our descendants. In doing so Clay lays down the challenge that this is where what today we call art comes from – the humble scratch, graffiti.

During the programme there was one piece that I found really affecting and it was this statement that what Graffiti really is is truth speaking to power.  This idea really struck a nerve when I saw a picture of the latest Banksy that he has put on the walls in the notorious refugee camp in Calais.  In one piece of graffiti Banksy has laid down a challenge that looks to confront the negative attitudes towards the thousands living there and the many thousands of others that are desperately fleeing conflict across the world.

In the picture the late Steve Jobs is depicted on the move, black back across one shoulder, with on of his first Apple computers in the other.  Steve Jobs was the son of Syrian migrant.  Banksy very rarely comments on his work but he has said this about his latest piece:

“We’re often led to believe migration is a drain on the country’s resources but Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant. Apple is the world’s most profitable company, it pays over $7bn (£4.6bn) a year in taxes – and it only exists because they allowed in a young man from Homs.”

Truth Speaking to Power if ever I’ve seen it.

#boysbookclub book of the year 2015

 

5. Falling out of time

So the crew met on Friday night to sup on some fine wine and food while arguing over our best book for this year and indeed whether or not it’s been a good, vintage or poor year for the books that we have read.  As always we had different opinions on this but for me it’s been a cracking year, there were a couple of books that I genuinely didn’t like but these were balanced by two or three that were simply astonishing and there was also Against Nature which although none of us really liked will live long in the memory.

We’ve covered different genres, countries, styles of writing and ages this year although we have only read one female author so we’ll need to redress that balance a bit perhaps in 2016.

Andrew our resident statto did some number crunching and we had five books that had an average combined score over over 7 out of 10 which is pretty high marks for us.  Our top three books when we went back over them were :

  1. Falling Out of Time by David Grossman
  2. A Dry White Season by Andre Brink
  3. Kafka on the Shore by Murakami

Falling Out Of Time was the overwhelming winner and it was one of the most incredible books I’ve read, part fable, part poem and a taut, heart rending piece of writing on grief from the Middle East reflecting on the regions families who have suffered too much for too long.  I’d urge you to read it if you have not come across it.

Although it didn’t make the top three I personally also loved Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan, a beguiling swirling masterpiece and an honourable mention also for The Humans by Matt Haigh a far subtler book that it’s simplicity suggests and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

We are kicking off 2016 by doing something new for us reading two books in one, both of the Harper Lee books in a bit of a compare and contrast exercise.  I’d love to know what you think of our list this year, together with what your favourite books were and what would you recommend for us to read in 2016.

 

Art bringing people together

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I’ve been to a couple of galleries recently, the British Art Show is in Leeds and my good mate Phil Dean continues to interpret the world around him through his delightful sketches.  It’s got me thinking a little bit about art and whether it brings people together.

My dad used to love to sketch and as his mobility declined liked nothing better than getting himself sat comfortably with a nice view where he’d either sketch or get the watercolours out.  When people saw him they would often drift over and have a look and my dad would invariably draw them into conversation.  I was really reminded of this when we were in Malaga recently watching the way Phil would quickly capture a scene wherever we happened to be.  He also does it in a way that does not distract from whatever else we are doing, happily chatting away enjoying some food and drink whilst at the same time sketching.  He will then often continue to work on and embellish the picture throughout the day, adding little flourishes and touches.

I’m no artist so resort like many of us to snapping a few photos on my phone but I think I have always struggled to adapt to the taking a photo of everyday things, is it intrusive ?  I feel uncomfortable with it lots of the time, there is sometimes an element of slyness,  furtiveness or voyeurism using a camera to capture an image that standing openly and drawing is the antithesis of, it’s transparent, people can come and look at what you are doing and in doing so give their approval (or otherwise of course).  What I noticed when Phil was doing this was how much people enjoyed it, someone taking the time to sketch their town, it didn’t matter what part of the town the sketch was in people wanted to have a look.

In looking it brought a smile to people and this was universal in whatever bar we happened to be in and on one occasion a waiter thrust a takeaway bag under Phil’s nose for him do draw something on.  We got chatting to numerous people, our lack of Spanish and their lack of English becoming irrelevant as the sketches of their town elicited a warmth that made us feel very welcome wherever we went, the art becoming a bridge between us.

This simple bringing of people together over someone’s drawings contrasts to the most part of my experience of galleries – they bring people in but do they bring people together ? Most galleries seem to actively discourage conversation you seem to have to look, contemplate internally and nod sagely.  I can’t imagine that this is what artists would have wanted when they were creating their art, surely they would have wanted interaction, comment, reaction and discussion not silence and sterility.  Maybe we are just scared of saying the wrong thing, of showing our ignorance in not ‘getting’ the work that we are looking at.

However even in galleries connections are sometimes made, while we were in the Centre of Contemporary art in Malaga looking at Ai WeiWei’s Zodiac Heads, Andrew got chatting to this elderly gentlemen who was staring in total wonder.  He was so awed by it he simply said I don’t want to leave this place.  A beautiful and powerful example of the transformative power of art.

Stephen Fry in a talk about art said the following:

Oscar Wilde quite rightly said, ‘All art is useless’. And that may sound as if that means it’s something not worth supporting. But if you actually think about it, the things that matter in life are useless. Love is useless. Wine is useless. Art is the love and wine of life. It is the extra, without which life is not worth living.

I love that sentiment and wholeheartedly believe it to be true, but in watching Phil sketch across the weekend it took on a different meaning, art is the extra, the addition to life and in creating it you can enhance people’s lives and bring people together, however fleetingly and put a smile on their face.

All the artwork on this page is from Phil Dean drawn on our recent Malaga trip.  Go check out his sketching site shoreditchsketcher

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