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DSC_1512Like me, you have probably never, or perhaps only recently, heard of Lens; a little provincial pocket of France thrust recently and violently into the tourist consciousness, yet still beautifully unaccustomed to its latest role as the home of the newest Louvre outpost designed by SANAA (a recession-respecting snip at a mere €140m), and the main reason for us arriving into nearby Lille last Friday morning for our annual office trip.

Working for an architectural firm means that thankfully office trips don’t mean cheap, vacuous weekend benders to Newcastle, but generally are programmed around an initial visit to a building/site/area of architectural interest. This is of course supplanted by an obligatory messy Euro-trash evening in a sweaty disco, before back to the cultural appreciation the following day, it taking a little more time to focus on exhibition guide text at that point.

Lille struck me instantly as far less industrial than I had probably unjustly and certainly unfoundedly, imagined it would be. Although an established eurostar terminal, it may be that it is more regularly used as I have used it in the past, as a changeover point to get to Brussels or Germany. It was certainly sans the mountains of tat which swarm over the streets of most tourist areas, threatening to engulf guided tours under lethal tsunamis of flag-emblazoned crockery. As I was served a beer at 11am with extreme nonchalance and without even a disapproving glint sweeping across the eye, I decided I liked it already.

The journey to the Louvre-Lens consisted of a 40 min train ride, during which a large number of grown adults (myself included) repeatedly exclaimed our amazement and happiness that the train was double-decker, a situation which I’m sure endeared us to our fellow French passengers and was undoubtedly compounded by the intermittent squeals of excitement and roars of laughter about the newly invented and utterly fabulous ‘shouty shouty tradey card game’ (patent pending). We enjoyed it, anyway.

Lens itself is a pretty little town, the insertion into its outskirts of an internationally important museum collection reminding me of the recent Tate Turner Contemporary constructed at Margate. Indeed an applaudable attempt to drive valuable visitor traffic to a place which currently has little. Would we have gone there otherwise? We arrived at the building after a very European 7 min walk (more like 15) and a touching welcome to France shouted from a window consisting of ‘fuck you bitch’ in redeemingly good English. A long, low and understated metal shed rose suddenly from behind some strange landscaped mounds in the immediate vicinity which were reminiscent of tellytubby land. They must’ve spent €120m on the inside, then. Well, yes and no. Aside from my facetiousness, you can see from the plans that the basement occupies the same long, low space as the building itself, providing extensive (and expensive) archive space for the Louvre’s immeasurable collection. It has also been carefully designed and specified (apart from the roof, which I’m told, in terms that a non-architect can understand is, well, not very good). We were not able to see the touring exhibition space as the Rubens show had finished only days before, much to my joy, viewing one of his waxy grimacing spectacles in the permanent collection was quite enough.

The main exhibition hall is beautiful and distinct, its vast expanse clearly influenced by Tate Modern’s momentous and celebrated Turbine Hall with a rather new take on museum curation; pieces displayed on individual floor panels and plinths, in chronological order and measurable by the timeline etched into the metal of the right hand wall.

DSC_1549 The attached pod area, or ‘garden pavilion’ is tacked onto the back of the main hall with the intention, I imagine, of bringing the visitor back into the here and now after the artificial lighting and whistlestop history tour of the shed. It achieves this effect sharply, vast floor to ceiling windows sucking in light greedily, scattering light-saber beams around the space through translucent floor to ceiling blinds. Shadows of light and dark pierce the (generally unpopular) scuffed floor surface like swords of good and evil, in the kind of detail drama that makes a photographer’s dream.

DSC_1573 After a thorough exploration the general verdict was positive; although perhaps a little too ‘in vogue’ for my taste, the brushed metal shed vibe starting to feel slightly nauseatingly trendy, it did feel coherent, well-designed and was a pleasure to experience. But it was Lille and Lens which ended up being the real winners, both turning out to be places I would visit again after initially being places I would never have chosen to go. We still haven’t managed to discover why a town so far inland appears to have seafood as its staple restaurant offering, but a quest to find out gives me a good excuse to go back!

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Thy beams so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou think ?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink

John Donne – The Sun Rising**

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Last week we embarked upon yet another trip to those strange and barren lands which make up Dungeness and the remote surrounding area. Hoping for some late summer warmth and to avoid the lashing rain typical of this time of year, I knew instinctively it would be tantalisingly free from holidaymakers. The near-deserted desert flanked by a fairly balmy English channel, not by any means tame but thankfully not a roaring fury either, which struck me as appropriately British.

We had brought the bicycles with us, intending to cycle everywhere possible, but forgot to bring the ordinance survey map. As a result, we spent the trip cycling up and down the thankfully expansive stretch of beach at low tide, intermittently halted by treacherous patches of less compact sand and psychotic wasps (are there any other kind?).

The changeable weather, as is often the case, eventually worked in our favour in terms of photographic opportunity. Looking at times apocalyptic, the variety and drama of the cloud formation and tone melded into a perfect storm, with bursts of sun spattering sparkles onto the mudflats as if the gods were hurling around lightning bolts upstairs, in some reckless game unfolding on the Elysium Fields.

I managed to capture an element of this, the extreme contrast between light and dark resulting in existing colour looking naturally over-saturated, its spectrum of pigment creating a beautiful adjacency with the frowning eyebrows of the stormy black clouds. Some images benefited from removing the hue; as we sat on the beach we remarked upon how, no matter how good a camera is, it will never exactly represent what you see through your own eyes, the view undulating microscopically as each millisecond passes, the camera having a limited technical capability and not a patch on nature’s own genius of invention. Transferring the images to black and white instantly recaptured the sense of overbearing impressed upon us by this weather, the immensity of the clouds and fluctuation of density were heightened and brought closer to reality by a slight shift in levels of tone in post-processing.

We initially hoped for clear blue skies. Thankfully we were given much more.

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Taken on a Nikon D60 with Nikon 18-55mm VR lens. Minor post-production in Adobe Photoshop.

**The entire poem is carved in wood and attached to the cladding of Derek Jarmans’ former house, Prospect Cottage, located in Dungeness.

I’m breaking two integral rules of my blog with this post. Firstly that its about art and secondly that it’s about art in the city ie. London. The second I can’t argue with; Dartmoor can in no way be mistaken for London, or any other city, no matter how familiar the desperate games of ispy you have to play to keep you sane in traffic jams on the way. But the first I can probably cover in some tenuous fashion.

This past weekend was spent by myself, the bf and 9 work colleagues in a boggy field in the middle of a moor and was much more fun than that actually sounds. After an epic 8 hr journey we realised, in typical comedic fashion, that we were lost. On the moors. At night. With no phone signal. Our only choice was to ask for directions in the local pub (thankfully not too reminiscent of the Slaughtered Lamb). Managing to extricate myself from an over-enthusiastic local guide and smiling sweetly at tedious local warnings to watch out for ‘the Hound‘, we finally set off on the final furlong. As we passed a sign saying ‘Sheep Lying in the Road’ I, in my by this time almost hysterically tired state, laughingly shook my head at this bizarre instruction, but all soon became clear. Passing over the cattle grid, in the pitch black that is evening on the moor, we were suddenly thrust into a surreal safari scenario; sheep featured heavily (lying in the road, funnily enough), horses rambled around unperturbed and my personal favourite moment, when a large, horned, angry looking bull seemingly challenged us to a territorial duel.

Somehow getting through this obstacle course we arrived and began to set up camp. Unluckily for us (which seemed to be the way it was going) my car battery promptly died and we discovered the campsite was akin to a marsh/bog. Cue much expletive muttering, squelching, lost shoes, louder expletives etc. until finally, having beaten all the odds, we were set up. At which point we sat down and got quite drunk.

Next day we took our planned trip to Castle Drogo. As we passed through the previous night’s safari plains in the daylight, we realised that the moor is extremely beautiful. Batches of heather and long stone walls pierce the barren landscape, absorbing you as you gaze at it; the power of mother nature hypnotising you back into her arms. Castle Drogo itself is a strange but enticing piece of architecture. I began the tour unimpressed at the self-indulgence of the building and its client. Drogo is the last castle to be built in England, in 1911 for Julian Drewe, a stinking rich businessman with delusions of grandeur. His saving grace was in hiring Edwin Lutyens, a well respected architect known for high profile projects in India and the Cenotaph in Whitehall, amongst many others. The detail in the building is sometimes stunning and often understated but never, unlike it’s commissioner, gawdy. A very modern castle is in itself an unusual thing to behold and in turn provokes contrasting associations; modern exposed surfaces, sprawling Tudor magnificence, 21st century minimalism, medieval defences (it even had a portcullis! Overkill indeed). Precedent chronology darting back and forth until you don’t quite know what you think or what it’s all about, but it’s got some very pretty details and particularly eye-catching grounds so it wins out overall.

The return journey to London was luckily not as harrowing as that on Friday but still lengthy as we took the scenic route and detoured to Salisbury. Having never visited the city before I am glad I did and would recommend it for those who like olde-worlde pubs (come on, who doesn’t?) and cathedrals. Sadly I didn’t have enough time to discover what else Salisbury may have on offer but did manage to grab a few snaps before we headed off home. Here are a few from over the weekend.

NB: A blog post may not be forthcoming next week as I’m away camping (again), at Green Man Festival this time, but if I get time/battery/signal I will definitely keep you up to date.

Sitting in Vinegar Hill Pottery, a hundred miles away, are 12 pieces of traditional clay dinnerware ready to be fired, glazed, packed and posted to me, to add to the 6 Raku pots I already finished and brought home on Sunday. Each of these began as a lump of wet clay in my very own hands. If you had told me a week ago that this would be the case I would have thrown you my most deprecating look and thought you a fool at best.

Having never been given the opportunity at school to try pottery, I was a complete novice and had serious misgivings about my potential lack of ability. It’s the familiar fear, which most of us have felt at some point, that you will be unspeakably rubbish at your chosen subject, whilst everyone else seems to take to it so naturally that you look up to find them staring, with open-mouthed horror, at your grotesque pot/painting/nude figure before they retire to whisper in corners about your scandalous lack of talent. Thankfully my rather dramatic fears were unfounded.

Much of my success was a result of the literally hands-on teaching by David Rogers, the local Potter who owns the studio and the house attached. Part of the house has been converted into a separate B&B, with individually accessed rooms. We stayed in the Hayloft, a gorgeous room ascended to via an exterior wrought iron spiral staircase, in which we were presented with a fabulous cooked breakfast each morning. This was included in the price of the 3-day course, as was lunch, cooked fresh by a local caterer in the adjoining house and rapidly demolished by the five of us taking the course in the showroom above the studio.

                 

The course began by teaching us the basic premise of how to work clay on the wheel. (Before a ‘Ghost’ joke even enters your mind, please take my word for it you are at least the 100th person to voice it, and it was crap the first time.) The closest we got to the erotic was whilst making the phallic shapes necessary to ‘centre’ the clay, during which my mature 30-something boyfriend peppered us with Beavis and Butthead sniggers as he watched me working the vertical cylinders. My subsequent disparaging stance was short-lived however, as he proceeded to then knock out creatively-shaped and carefully detailed bowls, cups, and plates at tremendous speeds, turning our romantic getaway into a brutal competition. I began to breathe smoke and got my head down.

We spent day one making cylinders, which are the base shape for all pieces except plates. This is most certainly harder than it looks, although easier to master than I expected after my first go; a fact which the deformity of my first pot is sure to demonstrate. The experience of having the wet clay in your hands and teasing it from a sticky, heavy, dollop into a smooth tall pot is inexplicably satisfying. It requires intense concentration and a certain amount of decent motor skills, but is undoubtedly achievable for almost any ability.

Once you have a basic cylinder, you can then lean on the clay to flare out the edges which creates a bowl, or manipulate the material to create other shapes for things such as vases or jugs. The main stumbling block is the co-ordination of spinning the wheel (with either a manual kick-wheel which you pump or an electric wheel which you gently accelerate), whilst focusing on lifting the clay. It’s a bit like learning to drive, albeit without the roads, or a car even. At points the clay becomes so thin it can easily collapse, which it did. Repeatedly. The boyfriend didn’t look quite so smug when his potential pieces ended up on ‘The Mountain’ of failed clay to be recycled. Ha.

Day two began with learning all about Raku; a traditional, rustic form of pottery from Japan. Raku clay is coarser, thicker and fired in an oil drum at 1200degrees. After firing the clay to harden it, the glaze is applied. The pots are then fired again, removed and covered in sawdust, which starves the glaze of oxygen and creates a cracking effect on the pot which many of you will recognise and is the trademark of the style. The process is manageable until the second firing, which took place on day 3. It then becomes random, as the finished effect depends entirely upon how the sawdust falls on the pot; which parts are hottest/coolest etc. When it emerges from the sawdust it is completely blackened and only a scouring process reveals exactly how it turned out.

So why should you go on this course? I can think of dozens of reasons why you most certainly should and not a single one as to why you shouldn’t. The accommodation is fantastic, the course is endlessly enjoyable (3 days wasn’t enough) and Milford-on-Sea is everything you would expect from a  seaside town on the edge of the New Forest; small, quiet, but full of quality restaurants and quaint charm – the fishmarket restaurant Verveine is an absolute must. David Rogers and his wife Lucy, who tirelessly keeps you stocked with tea and coffee, as well as looking after their 3 gorgeous children, literally cater for your every need. David even jump-started our car with a grin when the battery died on the last day. Think of it as going to holiday with your coolest hippy relatives in the countryside, add a bundle of clay and you’re almost there….