Suffering Arcadia. Scarborough Art Gallery. Summer 2019.

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There are only three pieces in Annabel McCourt’s exhibition, Suffering Arcadia at Scarborough Art gallery. Two of them are placed together in one of the gallery spaces, Happy Hour in the Harmful Factory and Electric Fence. Happy Hour in the Harmful Factory is described as a “feminist response to the futile optimism of milk as cure all” which probably explains as well as anything I could write why it didn’t really work for me and Electric Fence is a powerful and hard hitting work that deserves a more resonant space ( as it had in Beverley Minster) so I will concentrate on the third, MAGA Grabber, which has found the best home it could possibly have in Scarborough. I absolutely loved it.

Scarborough has a cheerfully kitsch seafront along the South Bay which has been shamelessly taking money from visitors in return for short blasts of fun for decades. The most popular machines, and the ones which do this particularly successfully, are the grabbers. You stand in front of a glazed box, pay your money and try to manipulate a grabber in order to pick up one of the tempting prizes- usually a cheap soft toy- and dump it in the chute. If you do that you win the toy. Let’s just say it is harder than it looks.

The MAGA Grabber is Annabel McCourt’s version of one of these. A response to the personality and tactics of Donald Trump it is loud and red, flaunting itself, seductively beckoning you in under the “Suffering Arcadia” title neon. It is a shallow sound bite, a sop to those who don’t want to think too deeply, populist in a way that Scarborough understands well with a hint of menace behind it. His well known speech about pussy grabbing is painted on the side. It is Donald Trump made mechanical and it suits his style perfectly, while managing to sum up how the entire modern political world operates shrewdly and concisely. A play on it costs nothing and it cheerfully admits- several times over- that you “the loser” will lose every time if you play it. You can’t say that you don’t know what you are getting into. In spite of this I still found myself using the grabber, which worked more easily than the seafront ones, to move the MAGA hats into the chute and the first time I did it I looked at the chute hopefully and then stood there wondering why I hadn’t won. More fool me. LOSER!

There are not many Art exhibitions where I have been stopped on my way into the gallery by a stranger- an older man- who was still excited and bemused by what he had seen and wanted to talk about it and the young woman on the reception desk inside was being buttonholed by people- including me- who wanted to process what they had just seen. Accessible Art that makes you think. We need a lot more of that.

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Sylvia Pankhurst. Working Women. Scarborough Art Gallery.


Sylvia Pankhurst (1882- 1960) is better known as a suffragist than an artist. Her parents were founding members of the Labour party and she worked hard for the WSPU alongside her mother Emmeline and her sisters Christabel and Adela. She designed the WSPU Artwork and while she was perhaps less militant than some and eventually parted ways with the WSPU, wanting a broader social remit than just votes for women, it didn’t prevent her from being arrested eight times between February 1913 and July 1914. Each time she was repeatedly force fed. She was strongly opposed to the first world war and gave practical help to those who needed it wherever she could. This was a woman on a mission who had huge strength and determination. Although she had great talent, trained at Manchester School of Art and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art her strong social conscience and her dedication to improving the rights and the social conditions of women was the guiding principle of her life.

The small exhibition Sylvia Pankhurst working women, which I saw at Scarborough Art Gallery, brings to life both the lives of working women in the early part of the twentieth century and Sylvia herself. She travelled around, sketching the women while they worked, not afraid to say what she thought about the dangerous, thoughtless way that they were treated and even showing the early signs of lead poisoning herself, when she spent too much time on site. All the potteries, except for Wedgwood, used lead in their glazes. Glazes without lead could have been researched and developed but the manufacturers objected to the expense- in spite of the effects on their workers. The dust from powdered flint used in the manufacturing process entered the women’s lungs- it was hard, unforgiving work. In spite of this not one of the women in Sylvia’s pastels looks sad or downtrodden. She has given the women a quiet dignity, elegance and stoicism, portraying the soft interior light of the factories beautifully while stopping short of romanticising them. They are not resentful or miserable, they are just quietly doing what they have to do to get by. What else is there? Sylvia is showing those who saw them at the time, and us now, that it doesn’t have to be like this. They may be doing what they have to do, but it isn’t fair and it isn’t right.

Two portaits stood out for me. A lovely head and shoulders portrait sketch from 1910 of a smiling young woman dressed up in a pretty bonnet- the only smile in the room- and a full length portrait of an elderly woman who is sitting upright in a Windsor chair from 1907. The old woman’s face carries the burden of a long working life and quiet dignity in every line- this is what the beautiful young woman may become as life takes its toll.

I spent a long time looking at this small collection of portraits. They are vivid and immediate and bring the injustices of the past, and the women who bore them, into sharp focus exactly as Sylvia would have wished.

 

All Creatures- curated by Mark Hearld. Scarborough Art Gallery.

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All Creatures, the summer 2016 exhibition at Scarborough Art Gallery is both fascinating and unsettling. There is something quite eerie about seeing a large number of stuffed animals and birds of many different kinds, still and silent, in close proximity in a way that they never would be in life. So alive and yet so very dead. Bright eyes that see nothing, creatures set in lifelike poses that will never change. Each one of them has achieved a kind of immortality. This is just a tiny selection of the astonishingly diverse life on Earth, seen through death, beauty tinged with sadness. I particularly liked the goose hiding under a display cabinet and the gannet in still flight.

The Victorians loved taxidermy and sometimes took it to extreme lengths in a way that now seems strange to us. This exhibition helped me remember why. Bringing things back to “life” was part of their fascination with death. It was also a way to get to see animals closely when there was little opportunity to see images of them in the wild. As such it was also a tool for study and this was the motivation behind the collection which Mark Hearld has chosen from.

Mark Hearld’s own work is anything but eerie. It is joyous and life affirming. It was good to see some examples full size after seeing and sending so many small cards and to be able to take in the texture of the collages. They were much bigger than I had expected them to be and they had great presence and personality, able to compete easily with the collection of real creatures around them. The gaze of the seagull- one which I see from real birds every day- was perfectly captured and I would have loved to take home the arctic hare. The huge monchrome lino print of birds in a tree celebrated bird life in a way that the taxidermy never quite managed. I wished that more of Mark’s own work had been included and it would have been good to see them intermingled with the collection in a more direct way.

An atmospheric and thought provoking exhibition. I shall be going back.

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Magic, Mysteries and Midnight Feasts. The many adventures of Enid Blyton. Scarborough Art Gallery.

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The Enid Blyton exhibition, Magic, Mystery and Midnight Feasts, at Scarborough Art gallery is fascinating. There are photographs, books, toys, letters, plenty for those like me who read her books years ago to enjoy and plenty of interactive play things for todays tots to have fun with. It’s the first major exhibition that there has ever been about her and it is in a small provincial gallery, a fact which is very telling. In her heyday Enid Blyton was hugely popular and the young woman at the ticket desk said that it had been a busy exhibition and the museum would be sorry to see it go. Her work rate was phenomenal- so much so that she liked to produce her typescripts as proof of authorship to people who doubted that one person could write so much. Unless it was a school story when she needed to keep track of characters as they moved up through the school years she never wrote notes. It all poured out onto a manual typewriter sitting on her desk or her knee.

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She understood in a way that no children’s writer had done before her how important it was to build a connection with her young readers. Any of them who wrote to her would receive a hand written reply- a big commitment in the days before social media- and there were competitions and invitations to teas at her home, Green Hedges.

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She took her commitment to her young readers very seriously. It was a very carefully managed public persona and it worked. Games, toys and books were marketed. Even her signature became a familiar logo which is still used. This is all commonplace today but back then it was very unusual for anything much to be known about an author outside the content of their books. Childhood reading was a private, solitary activity and authors were just names. Enid Blyton broke through that. She understood how powerful it was for readers to feel that they were being allowed into her world in just the same way that JK Rowling does today. All very cosy- she doesn’t sound like a controversial character but she was. She was disliked by teachers and librarians and eventually her books were banned, but nothing could stop children reading them. I will be kind and say that she was a woman of her time but plenty of people have examined the attitudes displayed in her prose and said much worse. Her books have proved lastingly popular- while not as omnipresent as they were- but they need careful editing before they are acceptable today. Here is an extract from Last Term at Malory Towers as a quite gentle way of showing what I mean without getting into accusations of racism or snobbery. I picked up the book in the exhibition and it took me seconds to find what I needed.

“Clarissa said she wished you would do it again, when she was looking” said Suzanne in French. “We would like to see it done. Me also I would like it very much. We are too big and old and prudent to do tricks- but we do not mind watching you!”
This was very naughty of Suzanne. No sixth-former would be silly enough to encourage the younger ones to come and play tricks in their room as much as they liked- which is what Suzanne was telling them to do! But Suzanne was French. She hadn’t quite the same ideas of responsibility that the British girls had.

It’s a very strong, moralistic authorial voice which I find unpleasant now but when I was very young I lapped it up along with everybody else. She had a way of making her readers feel grown up and important which was very flattering. You got to know her, even if you were never one of the lucky ones who got to visit Green Hedges. Her stories were exciting. There were girls who stood up for themselves, schools which allowed the pupils to bring their ponies with them, children who could outwit policemen, brave dogs, spooky islands and secrets. Her style was sometimes clunky- she did write very fast- but you were more interested in what was happening on the page. Her attitudes were never questioned because the stories pulled you along with them and your limited experience of the world allowed you to take them at face value. Enid Blyton was a nice smiley author who loved everybody who read her books so she had to be all right and you knew exactly what to expect from her.

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I left feeling quite sorry that this was the first exhibition devoted to someone who was such a major figure in so many children’s lives but also quite glad that nobody had mentioned the golliwogs. Some things are best left in the past and perhaps Enid Blyton is one of them.

The First 60 Years of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Scarborough Art Gallery. 11-07-15

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The Stephen Joseph theatre is sixty years old this this year- two years older than I am- and for someone who has been seeing productions there for thirty years the celebratory exhibition at Scarborough art gallery is a fascinating walk back through time. Theatre is an impossible art form to recreate- you are either there to see it at a given moment or you are not- and that is what makes it so special to those who love it. When it is gone it is gone. What we are shown in the exhibition are ghosts. Posters, photographs, costumes, props, designs, fragments of something that once lived and breathed. These fragments help us connect with the past, whether it is thirty years ago or last October. Oh the memories………… hand painted publicity from the seventies, two of the original seats which came to Westwood after the Floral hall was demolished, (I might have sat in one of them in either venue!) the white fur coat with a magnificent train that Sarah Parks wore as Marlene Dietrich, relics from the lifetime of a theatre. Magic props. Memories of plays that I saw, plays that I missed, plays that went on to be performed all over the world after their birth on a tiny round stage.

Woman_in_mindIt says a lot about both my family and the town of Scarborough that it took me until 1985- well after I had become a theatre nut- to walk through the doors into the old Theatre in the Round at Westwood for the first time. Our family holidays were about seeing the big summer shows and that was what both they and the town valued most. I struck lucky. It was the original production of Woman in Mind, one of Alan Ayckbourn’s best plays. I was completely entranced by both the play and the space. At that point I had seen nothing like it before. Even my dad had to admit as we walked out that “if they put that on in a proper theatre that wouldn’t be a bad play”. I have been going back throughout the thirty years that have passed since. I have seen some of the best theatre there that you could ever wish for and a few real turkeys. No playwright and no theatre company gets it right every time over that kind of timescale and that’s fine- it’s what makes it so special when it works. The stakes are high and you sit there in hope.

I have even performed there myself, back in the Westwood days when there was a break in the professional season and amateur companies were allowed to mount productions. It’s a thrilling space to act in- a very exposed circular arena where there is no place to hide. It demands truth and complains loudly when it doesn’t get it. Seeing an actor like Michael Gambon or Judd Hirsch at full pitch in an intimate space like that is a wonderful privilege. You are just lucky to be there in one of the few available seats without having to pay through the nose for the chance. Even today you can get a midweek matinee ticket for ten pounds if you are quick off the mark. I mean…….. come on, why wouldn’t you? So many famous names have been on stage in Scarborough that it is easy to forget that you saw them there first, I was surprised to find out, for example, that I saw Martin Freeman in the revival of The Woman in White back in 1997 when I saw his face in the exhibition. In contrast I have a very clear memory of Tamsin Outhwaite. I had picked her out as a star before she even opened her mouth as I watched her on stage flicking sulkily through a magazine.

It was good to read so many supportive quotes for the theatre around the walls. Alan Ayckbourn’s gift to the town has not always had the appreciation from the town of Scarborough that it deserves. A town councillor once famously remarked that the small subsidy which the council used to give would be better spent on public toilets. Luckily Ayckbourn’s loyalty to both the town and his mentor Stephen Joseph’s vision of a very special way of making theatre ensured that the town got a theatre whether it wanted one or not. It has been a lifeline and a joy to me through most of my adult life, growing and flourishing against the odds and it is still there, a beacon of live performance at the top of Westborough. That is something to celebrate. Long may it continue.

Last Stop Scarborough. Scarborough Art Gallery. 12-07-13

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Seeing Scarborough Art Gallery’s exhibition Last Stop Scarborough on a day when Scarborough News is reporting that the number of struggling families appealing to the council for financial help has doubled in the past year and that the Futurist theatre on the south bay seafront is very likely to close is quite a poignant experience. These are difficult times for the town but it hasn’t always been that way. Scarborough has had two boom times and a long standing tourist industry. During Victorian and Edwardian England the great and the good spent their holidays on the Yorkshire coast and during the 1960’s and 1970’s, along with Blackpool, it was one of the two entertainment Meccas of northern England. For a long time people have loved Scarborough and no matter what may be happening there now people will still smile and tell you a fond memory or two when the town is mentioned. Visitors still come. They may not arrive in the numbers that they used to and they may not spend as much, but they still have a good time. The Railway posters in Last Stop Scarborough form a lively account of how the town was sold to the visitors during the last century when the tourist industry was at its height and many people arrived by rail.

IMG_0023The advantages of the town’s setting haven’t changed. They have always been sun, sea, sand and family fun and in every decade this has been a major selling point. There is a beautiful early poster using the popularity of Lewis Carroll’s Alice with the walrus and the carpenter cheering “to see such quantities of sand” and an early tribute to the pester power of an Edwardian toddler showing a curly haired little Edwardian girl before and after her arrival on the beach. In Edwardian times Scarborough was patronised by the wealthy and stylish and probably my favourite of all the posters is a richly coloured image of the Spa in its heyday filled with glamorous people enjoying a night out. The crowds are shown making the most of all the possibilities that the town has to offer, a romantically lit performance at the Open Air Theatre, an orchestra at the Spa, swimming at a lido. A 1930’s couple settle down to eat in a fine restaurant, a well dressed young woman from the 1950’s is followed by an admiring young man, a passenger ship sits in the harbour lights ablaze. These are stylised image of pure aspiration. It isn’t just railway tickets that these posters are selling. They are selling dreams. In an era where many people didn’t have holidays a trip to Scarborough had all the cachet of a few days on the Cote D’Azur. It was somewhere to aspire to, a place to put on a suit and tie for, not somewhere you decided to nip over to in the car at the last minute if it was a nice day. Looking at these posters is like leafing back through the town’s photograph album, but this album contains the life of the town as it wanted itself to be seen, not as it really was. It all happened, but never quite like this.

As I left the exhibition I thought about the children sitting opposite me on the Hull train as I arrived in Scarborough. When they heard the announcement “This is Scarborough, our final destination” they cheered. So long as children are still doing that a much loved little town can hope that the good times will return.

Halfway to Paradise. Harry Hammond and the Birth of British Rock. Scarborough Art Gallery. Touring from the V and A. 14-03-13

“I wanted every girl in the audience to feel that I was there just to make love to her. And it was no act.” Adam Faith.

Poster for rock photo exhibitionThe exhibition of photographs by Harry Hammond at Scarborough Art Gallery, visiting from the V and A, is a fascinating look back at a vanished time. Many of the faces in them are familiar, as they became iconic figures and had long careers which stretched well beyond the period of the late fifties/ early sixties when the photographs were taken. These are the days of their youth and innocence, when everything was new and exciting. Many good looking and talented young people have followed the same path since but these were the pioneers. Their age group had never had a voice, money and influence before and in many of them they look as if they can’t believe their luck. It wasn’t just the music that the old guard found shocking- it was the simple fact that young people were asserting themselves for the first time rather than aping their elders. It was a revolution. A carefully staged revolution perhaps, but a revolution nonetheless. The producer Jack Good made sure that Eddie Cochrane wore black leather and Gene Vincent emphasised his limp when he appeared on television to make sure that they didn’t look too tame and polite, and there are many silvery suits and immaculate hairdos to admire throughout the exhibition. The young stars new status is recorded cheerfully, Cliff Richard stands beside his brand new grey Sunbeam alpine with red seats in 1959 and there is Lonnie Donnegan with his Riley Pathfinder in 1960. There is also a puzzling one of Lonnie standing in front of a quite large but ordinary suburban looking house with his wife and child that looks as if it may have escaped from the family album of an accountant. To get the point of these particular photos you need to remind yourself that young people had never had this kind of money before, unless they were born wealthy. There was a real wow factor in tasting success so fast and so young. There is a great shot of Cliff on his haunches looking thoughtfully at the poster for the first time he topped the bill at the Chiswick Empire in 1959. The girls are gorgeous, especially a teenage Helen Shapiro in the tiniest pair of shorts you have ever seen and Alma Cogan, always known for her frocks, hands on hips staring straight into the camera lens managing not to be upstaged by the fact the she is wearing a massive confection of lace and ostrich feathers which takes your breath away. Image was everything, just as it is today.

It is the shots from live performances which really hit home and make you feel the power of what was going on. These are young people using every ounce of their natural energy and there is both joy and danger in the best of them. Johnny Ray was known for his ability to work both himself and his audience into a frenzy of emotion and you can feel the power of his performance, even in the silence of a photograph, as he is captured really letting rip, holding a mike stand over his head as he wrings every last drop of emotion out of his song. My own favourite Billy Fury is shown in a large print clicking his fingers as his guitarist plays a riff and he is grinning all over his face- clearly having the time of his life and who could wonder?

There are a few simple portraits. The two best show that real star quality doesn’t have to be manufactured or mediated through a manager. Nat King Cole sang with great warmth, ease and honesty and the same qualities shine out of his face as he sits in his dressing room looking into the camera lens. Frank Sinatra can’t help looking relaxed and self possessed even as he leaves an aeroplane, glancing sideways at us in a trilby and carrying a smart flight bag. Nobody needed to tell him what was cool. He knew.

There is a great shot of a ticket office window with a mass of leaflets and posters for all kinds of shows. Looking round this exhibition really makes you long to be able to buy a ticket.