Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Museum Piece

Thanks to AbeBooks I've just read Museum Piece by James Laver, mentioned in an earlier post. He seems to have enjoyed an extraordinarily fortunate life, combining work as a poet, novelist and screenwriter, together with writing a number of books on fashion, biographies of Whistler, Tissot and Huysmans while holding down a job as keeper of the department of engraving, illustration, design and painting at the V &A. He got his job there without having any qualifications in art history - but then again, he did go to Oxford. As he says of his time there: "Certainly at Oxford one soon learned to distinguish the types: the earnest, carefully-courteous Wykhamists, the elegant Etonians, the noisy Carthusians and Rugbeians, the frank Philistines from Fettes and similar schools" [p.60] - plus ca change.

Unfortunately in 1926, "the busy but agreeable life I had been leading was suddenly interrupted by the General Strike". Despite the fact that he was, in his opinion, "an utterly unpolitical animal" he volunteered as a special constable: "If there were going to be barricades, I knew that I wanted to be on the side of Law and Order". He was, however, "a little disconcerted" by the "strange collection of Black-and-Tans and proto-Fascists who had flocked together for the saving of Society" [p.126].

He seems to have been a reasonably decent chap, but the book is pretty much a litany of name dropping - for example, he met Cole Porter when his successful novel Nymph Errant was turned into a musical; in his studio the songwriter "picked out the tunes [on the piano] which I thus heard for the first time, and which were afterwards to become famous". As is often the case, though many of the names dropped are impressive, he has little of any interest or insight to report. He says nothing about why he felt impelled to write a biography of Huysmans, which is disappointing.

One incident in particular stretches credulity. Laver is drinking in a Munich beer hall in the twenties when suddenly, "the music was interrupted by a little man with a falling lock and a toothbrush moustache who jumped on a table and began a speech denouncing the Jews. If only I had known - I would have stayed and listened."

A particularly indulgent chapter is devoted to his taste in fine wines and exquisite foods, including the menus for some of the more sybaritic examples. He does, however, mention that he was present at a number of banquets held by the Corvine Society presided over by Rolfe's biographer A J A Symons [pp.165-168, see earlier post] where, "around the room were displayed the original manuscripts of Corvo's books in his extraordinary Elizabethan script"; the whole lavish event was funded by Maundy Gregory, an equally colourful figure in his day who was probably a murderer.

He developed a massive interest in the occult and even travelled to Hastings to meet Aleister Crowley after having received an invitation - AC had enjoyed Laver's biography of Nostradamus. Laver's conclusion: "That he was a blackmailer is, I think, more than likely; that he was a fraud is certain. But was he nothing but a fraud?" Museum Piece was published in 1963 - would any mainstream publisher bring it out today? Laver died in a fire at his Blackheath home in 1975.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Bill Bruford

78 people showed up for the Bill Bruford talk last Friday evening - the joint was packed, as they say - afterwards he sold a fair number of books. The talk itself was very absorbing, covering some of the historical and economic reasons for the development of a music 'industry' and 'business' and the ways in which technology has influenced the production, distribution and consumption of music; he also threw in some amusing anecdotes involving Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Dire Straits and Coldplay.

The questions produced some stimulating responses - surprisingly (you might think) the most technical inquiries about drumming came from women in the audience and there was much talk of playing in unorthodox time signatures and different ways to hold a drumstick. It was encouraging to see a few young people in the crowd - two walked away afterwards carrying a drum head that he had signed, it also bore the signature of Steve Gadd.

I read his autobiography this week and it's certainly the most intelligent and thougtful I've seen written by a former 'rock' musician; there are even footnotes quoting music theorists and sociologists such as Chris Cutler and Simon Frith. As he said in response to an inquiry on Friday he 'doesn't do dirt', so you won't find any stories about snorting cocaine off Rolls Royces in swimming pools or debauched hotel shenanigans with groupies. Similarly, the ineffable mystery of Robert Fripp remains intact, despite some interesting insights. I think anyone considering a career as a musician should read it - it also offered some wisdom that I can apply to my own meagre creative endeavours. After the talk he spent a long time signing books and answering more questions including my own about the recording of 'Starless' on the influential Red lp by King Crimson (one of Kurt Cobain's favourites apparently). What a gentleman.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Birkbeck matters

I've only just found out about the death earlier this year of Barry Coward, eminent historian and one of my tutors on the Early Modern History MA at Birkbeck that I took around ten years ago. He came across as a genuinely nice and decent man, helpful and encouraging; he also wrote some important books on Early Modern English history. Obituary here and tributes here.

One of my other tutors Mike Berlin is organising an exhibition about the Partisan coffee house in 1950s Soho; it will take place in 2012, can't find the location yet. I wonder if he realises that the author of London's Coffee Houses was one of his students, although at that time it was Professor Michael Hunter who excited my interest in that direction through his seminars on Early Modern thought and belief.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Ida Kar and The Farm

Paid a visit to the Ida Kar exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery today. Worth seeing if you are interested in the artistic, literary and bohemian milieu of London in the 1950s and 1960s, as I am. One photograph in particular caught my eye - the caption referring to a coffee house I hadn't heard of before: The Farm at 14 Monmouth Street, run by Brian Robins (1928-1988) and his wife Susan.

When Brian Robins met Ida Kar and her husband Victor Musgrave he was apparently working as the last lamplighter in London; he was also a self-taught sculptor, who later became known for his kinetic sculptures. According to the catalogue (NPG No.68) The Farm was a short-lived coffee shop in the basement "which became a meeting-place for young artists and poets after the couple opened it on 23 June 1959. As well as selling coffee, its aim, according to Robins, ‘was to show works which the commercial galleries would not show…I felt that art freed from the purse strings would give it more scope and personality.’ Robins showed work by Gustav Metzger, Roger Mitchell and Susan Bryan. The last exhibit before the closure of The Farm in May 1960 was Robins’ painting machine, which produced a picture every twenty minutes.’"

Robins also helped Metzger publish the first manifesto of Auto-Destructive Art dated 4 November 1959 in which it was stated that, ‘Auto-destructive paintings, sculptures and constructions have a lifetime varying from a few moments to twenty years. When the disintegrating process is complete the work is to be removed from the site and scrapped.’

From 9-30 November 1959 Metzger exhibited 'Cardboards' a series of 'pictures’ made from cardboard boxes; he was interviewed by the Daily Express which published a story the next day with the headline, ‘Bearded man trips over a box and finds a new form of art…IT’S PICTURES FROM PACKING CASES’ (Museum of Modern Art Oxford 1999 catalogue pp24-28)

In December 1962 Metzger delivered a lecture/demonstration at Ealing Art College with slides and film entitled Auto-Destructive Art, Auto-Creative Art: The Struggle for the Machine Arts of the Future. One rapt member of the audience was art student Pete Townshend who acknowledged the effect of the lecture on his thought and later went on to play out his own auto-destructive art through his guitar smashing antics with the Who.

The artist went 'on strike' for a number of years (if only more would follow suit - Stewart Home was another fellow 'striker' for a time) and disappeared from view (although he would regularly come in to where I work) before being 'rediscovered' by a new generation.

Friday, 3 June 2011

French Leave

Just returned from camping in France - the cheap option. Stayed at Camping des 2 Rivieres, Martigny, a few miles south of Dieppe - beautiful site situated, as the name suggests, between two rivers and by a series of lakes - former gravel pits? Fortunately, we only found out on departure that the annoying mechanical noise carried by the wind on certain nights emanated from the busy local abattoir.

Recommended: the excellent salt water swimming pool by the beach at Dieppe - heated outdoor pool and indoor pools and baths; Cafe des Tribunaux in Dieppe, haunt of Wilde and various Decadents; Le Chapeau Rouge restaurant, Neufchatel-en-Bray.

Not recommended: Le Galion restaurant, Quai Henri IV Dieppe - overpriced and undercooked.