Monday, 28 April 2008

Yet more art...

It's Spring, so it must be art overload. Having just blogged Brighton's Open House art festival, I have just been reminded that May is also the month for the annual Battersea Contemporary Art Fair. Now in its sixteenth year, this is the largest artists’ fair in the UK, and features over 150 artists from the UK and overseas, selling paintings, photographs, sculptures and prints directly to the public (ie with no commission - saving up to 40%). So, rather than just looking at the art, you can buy it, if you so wish.

I went there a few years ago with my partner’s cousin, who was exhibiting her photography there. The venue is part of the Old Town Hall complex, and is about ten minutes’ walk from Clapham Junction station. It is a little pricey to get in (£7 adult, £4 concessions, free to U16s), but the range and quantity of art on display is impressive. Not every stall will take your fancy though - some of it is very mainstream, others very eclectic, so it depends on your taste. As well as straightforward art, there are artists who specialise in painting things like your pet’s portrait, if you are so moved. But there’s bound to be something that takes your fancy.

Unfortunately for me, I seem to be born with expensive tastes: rather than the stuff around £40, I seem drawn like a bee to a honey pot to the stuff in the £4,000 bracket. I don’t know if this means I have good taste, or just an eye for the commercially popular. My other half and I eventually bought a photographic print for around £90.

One of the big differences compared with an art gallery is the buzz created by such an event: last year, it attracted over 3,500 visitors over the week-end, and there are quite a lot of children wandering around, so the atmosphere is much more relaxed and informal, with lots of chatter and noise. Refreshments are available, and there’s a also jazz band playing during the Friday evening reception.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Some art down by the coast

As the weather's getting better, now may be a good time to think about a trip to the seaside. Trains run directly from West Brompton and Kensington Olympia every hour to Brighton, so in just over an hour you can be breathing in some healthy, briny air.

English seaside resorts are not everyone's cup of tea, of course, but if your tastes run to something more sophisticated than kiss-me-quick hats and fish and chips, then Brighton has plenty to offer by way of more sophisticated venues. And in May, it really makes a splash on the art scene with the Brighton Festival of Open Houses.

Now in its 28th year, the festival is based upon individual people opening up their own homes as temporary art galleries for dates in the month of May. It's now a big event - there are 221 venues and a staggering 1,000 artists and makers involved, many of whom open up their own homes and studios. The venues run from grand Regency houses to humble beach huts (well, you are beside the sea).

The art is extraordinarily varied: paintings and photography predominate, but there is also plenty of sculpture, woodwork, ceramics, textiles, glass and jewellery. Styles range from classic landscape watercolours to cutting-edge sculpture from reclaimed waste. The artists are often present if you want to discuss the work, and many venues provide a cup of tea and some home-made cake as an added temptation! The web-site gives full details of which venues are open and when, as well as useful maps.

Most of the venues are grouped together as trails, the idea being that people can walk from venue to venue at a leisurely pace. It also helps to keep the carbon footprint down - if you want to be really green, the Journey On website will help you plot a low-carbon route: taking the car, or (better) going by bus, cycling or walking. It tells you your carbon footprint, and how many calories you will burn off if you cycle or walk! (Besides, parking in Brighton's narrow and often steep streets is simply nightmarish).

So, a combination of sea, sun and free art. What a nice way to begin the summer.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Born to be wild

Anyone of a nervous disposition had better steer clear of Earl's Court this week-end, as Friday sees the beginning of the Custom Bike Show.

What we are talking about here are motorbikes: huge great bruisers of motorbikes, souped up with loads of chrome, fat tyres, stand-out-from-the-crowd paint jobs, and bucketloads of attitude. These are not bikes for shy, retiring types (if indeed there are any shy, retiring bikers out there), nor indeed would many of them be suitable for everyday use around Earl's Court: with stretched out front forks (think - big turning circle), loads of chrome and thunderous engines, these are not machines for messing about with clogged up rush-hour traffic on a drizzly wet day. These are machines for the open road, cruising to a heavy-metal soundtrack. Freedom, the right to party, going your own way.

The genre started - perhaps inevitably - in the USA, originally with Hell's Angels modifying their machines to make them distinctive and adding to their threatening appearance. It helps that is was also the home of the Harley-Davidson 'cruiser' style bike (neat Japanese sports bikes just don't wear the custom look) and the no-holds-barred freedom attitude. But it's taken off in a huge way here, and there's now a sizeable industry dedicated to producing and showing off machines.

There are two parts to making a custom bike: first, is designing and building the basic bike; second, is doing the paint job. Some designs are not much different from your average cruiser bike, whereas for others long stretched-out forks and gargantuan engine size can make the bikes look really extreme (and not that easy to ride, either). The paint jobs can easily be a match for the designs, with the art of the airbrush taken to its limits. Some of the paint jobs are simply beautiful, others scary. Some are miracles of chrome plating, but for others, less chrome is more, with matt black painted frames and exhausts for a really mean look.

The show both makes and breaks stereotypes. Expect lots of skull and cross-bone logos, leather jackets, bandannas, and hairy bikers into their tattoos, beer, heavy rock music and biker chicks (known by some as 'frails'). PC it is not. Equally, a large number of women are into custom bikes in their own right these days, and it is gradually recruiting (as is biking more generally) the wannabe rebel who just happens to work from Monday to Friday in a Building Society.

The event itself focuses of course on the bikes, with competitions for the best designs and paint jobs. There are trade stands where you can buy everything from the smallest accessory (and believe me, the range of accessories you can buy for bike seems limitless) to a whole bike made to your own specifications. There are also stunt demonstrations (biking over a high wire has to be seen to be believed), a Brits vs Yanks airbrushing competition and - an essential - live rock bands.

So, cruise on down to Earl's Court this week-end and grab yourself a slice of the action. Even if you work in a Building Society. Just don't own up to it...

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

A new gallery for London

This weekend sees the opening of a new art gallery in London, at Kew Gardens. The Shirley Sherwood gallery of Botanical Art will be the world's first, permanent gallery dedicated to this medium, and open all year round.

I've got a very soft spot for this type of art, having studied botany and undertaken some of the work for my Doctorate at Kew itself (though in the Mycological Institute rather than the gardens).

The art is fascinating for me on all sorts of levels. First, the really good art captures the essence of the plant better than any photograph. If that sounds a bit strange, it's because they can be painted without all the extraneous background material, and the various features shown to perfection. It's a sort of hyper-accuracy, if you like. Secondly, many of the illustrations are of huge historical importance, representing as they do a history of scientific endeavour from the 16th century onwards, especially the voyages of discovery in the 'New World'. Who could fail to be moved by the prints made for Sir Joseph Banks of the specimens he found in Australia (including the Banksias, named after himself)? And finally, of course, they are often beautiful works of art in their own right.

The collection of Botanical Art at Kew is, as you'd expect, one of the largest in the world: over 200,000 items include works by some of the recognised masters, such as Redouté (the picture is a reproduction of one of his - his incredible life is worth a blog itself one day). Some of these works are historically important in their own right, and the gallery will have the sort of environmental controls you would expect to maintain them in perfect condition.

But the gallery will also feature more contemporary works as well, many from the collection of Dr Sherwood herself, who has followed the new wave of botanical painters and the renaissance of their art form in modern times and possesses, arguably, the most important private collection of twentieth century botanical art in the world.

The inaugural exhibition begins next week-end, and will run through until October. It will highlight some of the best of both Kew's and Dr Sherwood's collections. You can be assured that I will be visiting it early on!

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Feeling fit?

As you may have gathered, there's a theme developing in the titles of this blog. After championing food, beer and books, it's about time for some exercise. Or, at least, writing about it.

The 28th London Marathon took place last week-end, and OK, it's not quite West London, although the finishing line is at least in SW1. It's actually (oddly) easy to overlook in West London as, unlike the East End, we don't experience the road closures and crowds. But we shouldn't: after all, with over 34,000 runners and over a million spectators, it is one of the largest global sporting events in the world.

It all started in the late 70s, when the former Olympic champion Chris Brasher, having run the 1979 New York marathon, mused whether such an event would be possible in London. Two years later, the first marathon took place, with over 6,000 finishing the route. Now, over 80,000 apply in the annual ballot for places, and its profile has grown along with the crowds of spectators.

As well as a sporting event, it has also become a sort of 26-mile long street party, with spectators taking advantage of both refreshment and entertainment along the route: some just have cup of tea, others a beer and full Sunday Pub Lunch, as some 60 bands have been booked by the 80 or so pubs that line the route. (Peculiarly British this - there’s even an official beer sponsor!) Even churches along the route get in on the act, although their offerings (on a Sunday, too) are generally less alcoholic.

The party mood is enhanced by the ever increasing number of runners who decide to run wearing fancy dress: lots of animals, cartoon characters, the odd Star Wars Stormtrooper, some in real Army Combat kit, and this year a group of real Masai warriors, who ran equipped with their spears (with special dispensation). Having never achieved more than a half-marathon, I can’t comment on what it must feel like, but I am hugely impressed by those who train so hard throughout the winter to run, and even more so with those who run in heavy, stuffy costumes.

Of the course the weather is one of those things that just cannot be relied on, especially as April can bring warm and humid summer weather temperatures, or as in this year a frost the night before, thunderstorms, showers…you name it.

Since 2006, London has become one of the World Marathon Majors, a series established by the collaboration of the marathons in London, Chicago, Boston, New York and Berlin, offering a major prize but also raising money of charity. The charity theme has indeed become a major feature of the London event, with many charities allocated places in the marathon from the organisers. Over £360m has been raised over the years, with over £46.5m raised in 2008. Sponsorship has equally become important, with Flora (margarine) now becoming a familiar name associated with the event.

For anyone interested in the Marathon, either competing, sponsoring, or just going along to watch - there is loads of really good information and advice on their web-site.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Feeling Bookish?

Having rather focused on beer recently, here's something completely ale-free. Books.

The next few days (14th-16th April) see the annual London Book Fair in the Earl's Court Exhibition Centre. It's not as huge as the Frankfurt version in the autumn, and nor is it anything like as old (Frankfurt goes back 500 years, to the invention of the printing press), but it still claims to be the largest global publishing event in Spring.

It's not aimed at the general public, though. It's firmly about selling books to people such as booksellers, librarians, and maybe other publishers and agents who might want to purchase subsidiary publishing or translation rights. Categories include academic publishing, promotional publishing, travel publishing and maps, general publishing and - that category of the moment - children's and young adult publishing. Who would have thought that one child wizard would have set the literary scene alight?

All this, of course, begs a rather interesting question: why is it that, in a world of ever more pervasive IT, do people still wants books? (And an irony of the Fair is that you can get a guide of the event to download onto your mobile phone!). But it seems as though it's true. Part of it has to be that, for all the advances in technology, reading a printed book is still easier for most people than lugging around a laptop and trying to view anything on a screen. 'Blackberries' are more portable, but the screens are tiny. Books are both robust and convenient items - they don't mind if they get squashed or dropped, they don't need batteries, they take only a second to take out and put away again, and virtually anything will function as a bookmark.

And when you've read them, you can pass them on, or just add them to the already groaning shelves (well, it can make you look learned - so long as your guests don't actually read what's there), or give them to a charity shop. Pub interior decorators filled thousands of pubs with unwanted books in the 1990s. I've seen them used as door-stops, supports for furniture, and even - though less nicely - as fuel for the fire. But I also think that there's something incredibly irresistible about bookshops too. I know that the world is getting a bit more bland in this regard, as the mega-chains (and now even supermarkets) edge out the little guys, but I can still happily while away hours in a bookshop, wishing I didn't have to whittle down the choice to one or two affordable items.

Maybe it's because I was once a school librarian (I know: don't laugh. What other route was there, to stay in from the cold at break time?). Mind you, I never found the Dewy Decimal Classification System exciting - perhaps just as well. There was always something just a little bit sad about those with such a strong urge to order things in a system - rather like those whose CD collections at home are arranged in perfect alphabetical order. (And I am sorry if yours are: it's just not me).

Anyway, all this typing about books has given me an idea, so I'm logging off now, and going to bed with a good... Well, you know the rest. Night night.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Real food and real ale

Now here's a date for the diary to whet your appetite: the Real Food Festival in Earl's Court on 24th-27th April.

The aim of the festival is to encourage people to try the very best quality food and ingredients - a sort of huge 'Farmer's Market'. The emphasis is on high quality, fresh and locally produced food, and food products made with wholesome ingredients. Whilst not every exhibitor is necessarily an organic producer, many are and the emphasis is still on natural products and care for the environment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the main sponsors is now the Whole Foods Market, the high-class American food supermarket chain, who now have a store in Kensington.

There will be over 500 producers present and, although most will be from the UK (in line with the 'buy locally' ethos), many will be coming from overseas, for those products (like olive oil) we can't produce here. One of the stalls I will doubtless be heading towards, as a Somerset boy born-and-bred, is that of Cotleigh Brewery. Based in Wiveliscombe, West Somerset, they have been producing fabulous award-winning real ales since 1979, with delicious brews such as Tawny Owl and Golden Seahawk.

Other breweries represented have some wonderful names - Fallen Angel, Leatherbritches and Red Rock, as well as the more familiar Wells and Youngs. There will also be distributors such as Utobeer, who normally operate from London's Borough Market, wine and cider producers, and even the odd liqueur manufacturer (one from Anglesey, no less).

Although the main attraction for many will be sampling good food and drink, with restaurants as well as smaller stalls, there will also be workshops, cookery demonstrations, educational films about food and a debate entitled 'Is cheap food costing the Earth'? If that's too cerebral for you, you could always visit a pen where you can 'pat some pigs' - but perhaps not after trying too much 'Tawny Owl'!

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Ales in April

Well, at last the weather seems to be waking up to the fact that it is supposed to be Spring. And is that a cuckoo I can hear? (No, actually - not in Earl's Court). But you get my drift. Spring is here, and with it, one of the traditional times for Real Ale Festivals - usually in association with St George's Day. Spring Ale is after, a popular beer type in its own right, and what better way to drink it than to sample several?

So, where can we find such gatherings within easy reach of West London?

Well, for start, there's Ye Olde Mitre in the City, tucked away just a few minutes' walk from Farringdon and Chancery Lane tube stations. This wonderful 16th Century hostelry is simply a great place for a pint, and between 21st and 24th April are having a festival for St George's Day.
Unsurprisingly, the beers tend to feature references either to St George himself or the unfortunate dragon.

Featured beers will include: St George's Best
from the Acorn Brewery; St George's Bitter from Arundel; Dragon Slayer from Banks & Taylor; St George's Ale from Daleside; Dragon's Head Stout from Orkney; St George & The Dragon from Manns; and St George's Flag from the Phoenix Brewery.

A little closer to home, there's the Speaker, another no-nonsense beer lover's pub. From the name, you can probably guess that it is close to Parliament, actually located just behind Strutton ground off Victoria Street. Their festival runs from 21st to 27th April, but as yet they have not announced their ale selection. But they are also renowned for their great traditional pub grub, so get there early if you fancy some food with your beer. (NB They open Sunday lunchtimes, but not on Saturdays).

Down in South Wimbledon, the Trafalgar - South West London CAMRA's pub of the year for 2008 - is planning a two-day St George's festival on 25th and 26th April. This is a very small, down-to-earth pub, and a wonderful antidote to any pretensions the rest of Wimbledon may have.

Those in Kingston can visit the Willoughby Arms, which between 23rd and 27th April will feature 40 English Ales and Farmhouse Ciders in their twelfth St George's Day festival. Check out their wacky web-site...

Out in Twickenham the Ailsa Tavern is also having a St George's beer festival, this time with 17 different ales, beginning on 21st April, and running until the ales run out (literally). The Ailsa is a favourite with rugby fans before and after the match (well, depending on the score, I guess) but is also well-known for its pizzas, if you fancy one of those with your pub.

Still staying with the Twickenham area, there's the fabulous Red Lion in Isleworth, CAMRA's pub of the year in 2003-04, no less. You'll have to wait a little longer, as their festival is not until the beginning of May, but with 50 ales as well as cider and perry, it should be worth waiting for (one for the diary, I think).

And if that's not enough for you, then you only have to wait for May and the Mild festivals being planned!