Archive for the London Category

The Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon, London

Posted in Ghosts, History, Legend, London, Sculpture with tags , , , , , on July 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Jeremy Bentham was apparently quite a character. As well as being an influential philosopher and jurist, he was probably the first ever Englishman to donate his body to medical science when he passed away in 1832. Even more unusual was his request that his body should then be turned into what is known as an ‘auto-icon’. This is exactly what happened, and Bentham’s auto icon can now be found in the cloisters of University College, London.

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

Sitting in a rather smart wooden case, Bentham’s auto-icon may looks like the kind of waxwork figure that you might expect to find nearby at Madame Tussaud’s. In fact this is Bentham’s actual body, with his articulated skeleton hidden below his smart outfit and his real hair sticking out from underneath his wide-brimmed hat.

The head which currently sits on the figure is indeed wax, but Bentham’s real head still exists. It used to be exhibited at the feet of the auto-icon, but curators recently decided that it was just too fragile to leave on display, and it is now safely kept in temperature-controlled storage. I must say I was rather glad to hear it – if you think the figure is kind of spooky, wait until you see the head…!

Jeremy Bentham's head, UCL

Jeremy Bentham’s head, UCL

A number of strange tales have appeared over the years concerning this bizarre figure. One relates that Bentham’s body was put into storage by the College in 1955, with creepy consequences. It seems that Jeremy was not too happy about being hidden away, and his vengeful ghost went on regular rampages throughout the college until he was finally put back in his rightful place in the cloister.

Another story tells that the head was only taken off public exhibition after its theft by rowdy students from Kings College, who ended up using it in a game of football. It is also said that Bentham is still taken into meetings of the College council, and that it is recorded in the minutes that Mr Bentham is ‘present but not voting’.

The latter two are apparently just myths. As for Bentham’s ghost, well I will leave it up to you whether you believe that one.

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

Little Compton Street, London

Posted in History, London with tags , , , , on July 6, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Under a traffic island in on a busy road next to London’s Soho district is perhaps not the most obvious place to look for magic. But strange things can be found in the most unexpected places.

A traffic island on London's Charing Cross Road

A traffic island on London’s Charing Cross Road

Back in Victorian times, Little Compton Street was a bustling lane which joined Old and New Compton Streets. In 1896, however, the area was largely demolished to make way for Charing Cross Road, and the street level was raised. If you look carefully, however, you can find an intriguing remnant of Old London right beneath your feet. Below the unassuming grate in the middle of Charing Cross Road can be seen a wall still bearing not one, but two street signs for the now-buried Little Compton Street.

The underground street signs for Little Compton Street

The underground street signs for Little Compton Street

Not quite a secret street perhaps, but this is still a rather magical remnant of London’s fascinating past, and one which most people pass over without ever even knowing it’s there.

British Folk Art, Tate Britain

Posted in Art, History, London, Museum, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2014 by mysearchformagic

It’s hard to know how to define the term ‘Folk Art’, the subject of a current exhibition at London’s Tate Britain. It is often created by self-trained artists, although I should think many of its makers would not think of themselves as artists. Some of it could be described as ‘craft’ as opposed to ‘high art’, but many of the objects in the exhibition were created using incredible skill and effort. A number of the pieces on show were linked with local traditions and customs. Some of them are downright bizarre. But, as you have probably guessed, a fair few of them were also pretty magical.

A wall of shop signs in British Folk Art at Tate Britain

A wall of shop signs in British Folk Art at Tate Britain

The show gets off to a great start with an impressive yellow wall lined with a selection of shop signs of all shapes, sizes and dates. One takes the form of a giant shoe, fashioned and stitched perfectly from leather just like its normal-sized counterparts. A wonderfully enigmatic sun hangs at the top of the display, looking down on the gallery visitors with a hint of a smile.

A cockerel fashioned from mutton bones in British Folk Art, Tate Britain

A cockerel fashioned from mutton bones in British Folk Art, Tate Britain

Another highlight of British Folk Art is a beautiful life-size cockerel created out of mutton bones by French prisoners of war during the Napoleonic era. Each of its feathers is intricately and individually carved, transforming the most basic material into something lively and enchanting.

A straw effigy of King Alfred in British Folk Art, Tate Britain

A straw effigy of King Alfred in British Folk Art, Tate Britain

Definitely the most extraordinary object in the exhibition is this life-size straw effigy of King Alfred. Reminiscent of the terrifying final scene in cult classic The Wicker Man, it’s hard to get a sense of just how imposing and spooky this figure is without encountering it in person. All the more reason to check out British Folk Art at Tate Britain, and experience a branch of the arts that, despite generally being overlooked, often retains an ancient, even mystical sense of wonder.

An iron shop sign in the shape of a sun from British Folk Art, Tate Britain

An iron shop sign in the shape of a sun from British Folk Art, Tate Britain

Details on visiting British Folk Art can be found here.
All images copyright the Tate.

The Collection of the Magical Dr. Dee, The British Museum

Posted in History, London, Museum, Superstition, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2014 by mysearchformagic

I’ve been back to the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum again this week, but not to see the creepy little merman. This time I was more interested in the items from the collection of Elizabethan astrologer and magician Dr John Dee.

The Museum has a number of objects which once belonged to the fascinating Dr. Dee in its collection. There are two wax discs which supported his ‘table of practise’, and another larger disc which held his mystical ‘shew stone’, a highly polished obsidian ‘scrying’ mirror used for divination. A small inscribed gold disc shows images of one of Dee’s magical visions, and the crystal ball was used by his assistant Edwards Kelly to conjure up his own mysterious images.

Magical Objects from Dr. John Dee's Collection

Magical Objects from Dr. John Dee’s Collection

A close advisor of Elizabeth I, Dee spent much of his later life dabbling in the occult, and travelled around Europe indulging in all sorts of bizarre experiments. However, he fell out of favour after Elizabeth’s death, and ended his days in penniless obscurity in Mortlake, now in the suburbs of London.

A portrait of John Dee, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

A 16th Century portrait of John Dee, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

It seems that Dr Dee was particularly keen to make contact with angels, which he attempted to do using his crystal ball and obsidian mirror. Was he successful? I guess we can only wonder. But staring into the inky black depths of that scrying mirror, maybe my eyes were playing tricks, but I thought perhaps I saw something…

Tomorrow, Elmgreen & Dragset

Posted in Art, House, London, Museum with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2013 by mysearchformagic

There’s been outrage in Kensington over the last couple of weeks. Passers-by can’t help but notice the enormous billboard outside the world-renowned Victoria and Albert Museum announcing that a luxury flat is for sale within the museum itself. Shocked locals are calling up to express their disgust at the idea that part of this historic institution is being sold off. A few people have been in touch expressing an interest in buying it. All of them have been informed that the billboard is an elaborate wheeze created by artistic duo Elmgreen & Dragset as part of their latest installation, entitled Tomorrow.

Controversial hoardings outside the V&A, London

Controversial hoardings outside the V&A, London

I was lucky enough to attend an evening private view of Tomorrow this week. Typically of Elmgreen & Dragset, the installation involves a complex back story – in fact they describe the work as the set from an unrealised film.

The opulent drawing room of Tomorrow All images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London

The opulent drawing room of Tomorrow
All images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London

Grand galleries which once housed the V&A’s tapestry collection have been magically transformed into a vast apartment, the home of ageing architectural academic Norman Swann. Born to a wealthy family, Swann has never quite lived up to his potential; none of his designs have ever been built, and now he is old and washed up, out of money and being forced to put the apartment on the market. Visitors to Tomorrow are invited to stroll around the huge, rather soulless chandelier-lit space, taking in the massed ephemera of Swann’s long life.

A strange figure cowers in the fireplace in Tomorrow All images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London

A strange figure cowers in the fireplace in Tomorrow
All images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London

But things are never quite what they seem in Elmgreen & Dragset’s world. Take a look beyond the expensive antique furniture and opulent oil paintings and you will notice lots of strange details dotted around the installation. A crack snakes it way across the huge dining table, cutting through the plates on top and the chairs which sit around it. A lifelike mannequin of a schoolboy cowers in a fireplace below a painted portrait of himself. A spooky dummy in a French maid’s outfit stands frozen in the hallway. A gilded vulture leers expectantly over Swann’s luxurious bed.

The luxurious bedroom of Tomorrow All images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London

The luxurious bedroom of Tomorrow
All images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London

Elmgreen & Dragset provide visitors to the show with a booklet which they have written themselves, a script to the so-called ‘unrealised film’ for which this apartment is the set. I prefer to dream up my own narrative to fit the scene. As you wander around Tomorrow it is impossible not to let your imagination ramble through all sorts of bizarre, magical connotations. What the script that you concoct will look like, well who is to know? The possibilities are tantalisingly endless.

The cracked dining table, Tomorrow All images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London

The cracked dining table, Tomorrow
All images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London

Elmgreen & Dragset’s Tomorrow will be open until 2nd January 2014 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington.
http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/tomorrow-elmgreen-dragset/

A Merman, The British Museum

Posted in History, London, Museum, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Whenever I visit the British Museum, my first stop is always the Enlightenment Gallery. This long, high-ceilinged room is lined with old-fashioned wooden display cases containing some of the objects that formed the original collection of the Museum, many of them donated by its founder Hans Sloane in the mid-18th Century. Although it is now known as a vast repository for historical objects, when it was first created the British Museum also included all sorts of wonders and curiosities, including natural specimens, books and manuscripts.

The Enlightenment Gallery, The British Museum

The Enlightenment Gallery, The British Museum

With its diverse selection of weird and wonderful exhibits, the Enlightenment Gallery is reminiscent of the Cabinets of Curiosity which were so popular in Europe during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Not surprisingly, amongst the coins, ancient sculptures, Greek pots and other treasures can be found a number of distinctly magical objects. My favourite is the tiny Merman, who skulks in the shadows of one of the lower cabinets near the middle of the room.

The Merman, The British Museum

The Merman, The British Museum

With its withered face, shocked expression and spiky teeth, the Merman is a scary little thing. Apparently the original owners claimed that it had been captured in the sea near Japan. Those cynical curators at the British Museum think that it might not be authentic, and is in fact the top half of a monkey stitched on to a fish tail. But I am not so sure.

What do you think?

Dream No Small Dreams, Ronchini Gallery

Posted in Art, Landscape, London, Photography, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2013 by mysearchformagic

This week I stumbled across a rather intriguing exhibition at London’s Ronchini Gallery, entitled Dream No Small Dreams. The show features the work of three artist; Adrien Broom, Thomas Doyle and Patrick Jacobs. All three share an obsession with small-scale fantastical worlds, each using different techniques to create their own miniature, magical alternative realities.

An installation view of Dream No Small Dream, Ronchini Gallery

An installation view of Dream No Small Dream: The Miniature Worlds of Adrien Broom, Thomas Doyle and Patrick Jacobs, Courtesy of Ronchini Gallery

Broom’s Frame of Mind photographs portray imagined landscapes inhabited by tiny ‘Borrowers’ style figures. They are cinematic in their scope, if teeny-tiny in their execution.

Left Over Things, Adrien Broom, 2010

Left Over Things, Adrien Broom, 2010, digital C-type print, 60 x 40 in, courtesy the artist and Ronchini Gallery

Thomas Doyle’s sculptural scenes of destruction, disaster and mayhem are intricately detailed and beautifully executed, all of them housed in elegant glass domes. They present a bizarre, unsettling world where typical suburban homes are swallowed up by sink holes, lifted off the ground by hurricanes or smothered in overgrown Cinderella-esque vines. Meanwhile, the pint-size protagonists who inhabit them seem blithely unconcerned by the strangeness that surrounds them.

Beset, Thomas Doyle, 2013

Beset, Thomas Doyle, 2013, mixed media, 17.5 x 14.5 x 14.5 in, Courtesy the artist and Ronchini Gallery

My favourite exhibits in Dream No Small Dreams were without a doubt the hyper-realistic sculptures by Patrick Jacobs. Embedded into the wall and viewed through tiny ‘fish eye’ portholes, these glowing landscapes have more than a hint of the fairytale about them. Jacobs’ teeny weeny dioramas feature sublime vistas of trees, meadows and rolling hills, and are created from an unusual selection of media, including styrene, acrylic, ash, talc and hair. The skill involved in creating these unfeasibly realistic scenes, with each leaf and blade of grass perfectly and fully formed, is astonishing. It isn’t an overstatement to say that I could almost feel with warmth of the summer sun on my face as I gazed through the tiny windows into these magical, miniscule panoramas.

Stump with Curly Dock and Wild Carrot Weed, Patrick Jacobs, 2013

Stump with Curly Dock and Wild Carrot Weed, Patrick Jacobs, 2013, Mixed Media, Courtesy the artist and Ronchini Gallery

Check out Patrick Jacobs’ website here for more wonderful works. It’s hard to get a true impression of their impact from photographs, so if you ever get the chance to see his sculptures in person I recommend you take it. You won’t be disappointed.

Stump with RedBanded Brackets and English Daisies (detail) , Patrick Jacobs, 2013

Stump with Red Banded Brackets and English Daisies (detail) , Patrick Jacobs, 2013, Mixed Media, 77 x 123 x 80cm, Courtesy of the artist and Ronchini Gallery

Dream No Small Dreams, curated by Bartholomew F. Bland will be at Ronchini Gallery London from 6 September to 5 October, ronchinigallery.com.

Choupatte, Claude Lalanne

Posted in Art, Design, London with tags , , , , , , , on August 6, 2013 by mysearchformagic

I wandered into Ben Brown Fine Art in Mayfair this week, and discovered an exhibition of the work of art/design duo Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne.

I was already aware of their fun animal sculptures, such as their woolly sheep, which also double up as furniture. Works like these are highly collectable, and have sold for huge amounts at auction, also gracing the homes of collectors including Yves Saint-Laurent and Tom Ford.

But on this occasion I was particularly enchanted by Claude Lalanne’s Choupatte sculptures. Made from bronze, the Choupattes come in two sizes – a cute little life size version to sit on a table top, or a huge rather scary version which stands on the floor.

Choupatte (très grand) 2008-2012, Claude Lalanne (Image courtest Ben Brown Fine Art)

Choupatte (très grand) 2008-2012, Claude Lalanne
(Image courtest Ben Brown Fine Art)

The Choupatte sculptures encapsulate Claude Lalanne’s love of the surreal, tinged with a subtle dose of humour. They made me smile. And they are definitely rather magical, don’t you think?

Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne at Ben Brown Fine Art until 21st September
http://www.benbrownfinearts.com

Curious, West Norwood Cemetery

Posted in Art, Cemetery, Crypt, Landscape, London, Photography with tags , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2013 by mysearchformagic

With its meandering paths, overgrown graves and delapidated but still imposing mausoleums, West Norwood Cemetery definitely has an air of magic about it. But in recent weeks the historic graveyard has been even more magical than usual, thanks to a large scale art exhibition/installation appropriately named Curious. Featuring a long list of contemporary artists, the works of art on display are site specific, interacting with the cemetery and often taking their inspiration from their unusual location.

A details from A Question of Archival Authority, Jane Wildgoose

A detail from A Question of Archival Authority, Jane Wildgoose

Jane Wildgoose’s installation A Question of Archival Authority was the first piece that I discovered on my visit last weekend. Situated inside the grand Maddick Mausoleum, Wildgoose’s use of antique mourning jewellery and flickering candles created a wonderfully gothic atmoshere, effectively evoking many questions about the practise and process of mourning and remembrance.

Jane Ward's contribution to Curious at West Norwood Cemetery

Jane Ward’s contribution to Curious at West Norwood Cemetery

Many of the works which appeared as part of Curious were paintings or collages placed within the doorwarys of the Victorian sepulchres. Some were bold and bright, others more calm and mysterious.

A work by Ian McCaughrean in the Greek Section of West Norwood Cemetery

A work by Ian McCaughrean in the Greek Section of West Norwood Cemetery

Despite my best efforts, and the help of a specially commissioned map created for the exhibition, I didn’t manage to locate all of the works on show. However, the thrill of trudging through the undergrowth, discovering incredible monuments and gravestones along the way, was all part of this unique experience.

Andrea Thoma's installation Steps/washed over in West Norwood Cemetery

Andrea Thoma’s installation Steps/washed over in West Norwood Cemetery

I fell in love with West Norwood Cemetery. Apparently a set of huge catacombs can still be found beneath the hill at the top of the graveyard, but these are rarely open to the public. I was also impressed with the range of artworks included in Curious, many of which encouraged new ways of looking at the cemetery, its monuments and its ‘residents’.

I Miss U by Lucy Spanyol

I Miss U by Lucy Spanyol

Some of the most effective artworks were those which dealt directly with concepts of death and bereavement. Lucy Spanyol’s I Miss U, which placed an eye-catching banner of artificial flowers in front of a coppice filled with ruinous grave monuments, was definitely a favourite of mine. Its use of informal ‘text speak’ and colourful floral garlands to relay a message filled with the despair of loss was moving and quite beautiful.

Unfortunately I discovered Curious on its final day, so the works of art are now long gone, existing just as photographs or in the memories of the visitors who managed to catch this wonderful, magical event.

http://www.westnorwoodcemetery.com/curious_trail

The Tea Maze, Crystal Palace Park

Posted in Landscape, London on July 2, 2013 by mysearchformagic

I am becoming a bit of a fan of Crystal Palace Park. It is a place with a fascinating history, and is still dotted with many evocative remains of this history, not least the ruins of the original Crystal Palace and the amazing dinosaurs. I’ve visited it many times, but only recently became aware that it is also home to a maze. Visiting the maze has been on my list of magical things to do ever since. This weekend I finally made it, and it was well worth the wait.

The entrance to the Tea  Maze, Crystal Palace Park

The entrance to the Tea Maze, Crystal Palace Park

There is definitely something magical about mazes. Whether they feature in ancient myths such as the Greek tale of the Minotaur and its underground lair, decorate the floor of medieval cathedrals like Chartres, or even appear in modern movies such as Labyrinth or The Shining, these elaborate puzzles have fascinated us for millennia. Nowadays full size mazes are rare, so finding one almost on my doorstep was a real thrill. The maze in Crystal Palace Park is apparently the largest in London, and although originally created in 1870, its current incarnation is thanks to extensive replanting in 1987 and more recent restoration in 2008. It is now known as the ‘Tea Maze’ thanks to the genteel Victorian fashion for visiting the labyrinth after taking tea in the park.

Entering the labyrinth, Crystal Palace Park

Entering the labyrinth, Crystal Palace Park

The maze in Crystal Palace Park is not that easy to find, so it is perhaps not surprising that it has evaded my notice for so long. It is nestled in a circle of tall trees, largely hidden from view. The hedges of the maze itself are low, meaning that the centre is always just visible in the distance – so temptingly close and yet so annoyingly far away.

The view towards the centre of the Tea Maze, Crystal Palace Park

The view towards the centre of the Tea Maze, Crystal Palace Park

Small carved ‘monoliths’ are placed at points around the route, perhaps to help confused visitors remember where they have or have not been. It certainly didn’t help me much, and I will admit to being slightly frustrated and more than a little bit dizzy by the time I stumbled upon the heart of the circular maze. There I found a pretty, peaceful space lined with stone benches, the floor decorated with a motto in carved stone;

pause here for a while

listen for the echoes

past, present, future

follow in their footsteps

The poem at the centre of the Tea Maze, Crystal  Palace Park

The poem at the centre of the Tea Maze, Crystal Palace Park