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August 16 2012

Michael Snow obituary

Particle physics, geology, astronomy and music were among the essential elements that fed into the art of Michael Snow, who has died aged 82. He was a highly cerebral painter and a perfectionist who would agonise over whether a painting was finished or not, in some cases for many years. This reticence meant that some excellent work was never allowed a public airing. Some of his finest paintings resembled the dance of subatomic particles, while his metal constructions explored the interplay of form and space.

Born in Manchester, Michael was educated at Lawrence Sheriff school, Rugby. He worked for a period as a librarian before moving to the Land's End peninsula in 1951. Cornwall at this time was living through a golden era of innovative British art and Michael quickly discovered his vocation as a non-figurative painter, becoming good friends with most of the important artists working there, including Ben Nicholson, Terry Frost, John Wells, and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, as well as the poet WS (Sydney) Graham and his wife Nessie.

Michael was a co-founder in 1957 of the Peterloo Group with his friend the poet and literary critic Robin Skelton. Soon afterwards Michael's first wife, Sylvia, married Robin; and Robin's wife, Margaret, became Michael's second wife. They all continued on good terms for the rest of their lives. Michael was also highly active as secretary to the Penwith Society of Arts, and taught at Exeter School of Art and Design for 20 years.

Michael kept in touch with Nicholson long after he moved to Switzerland and he remained a significant mentor to the younger artist. On one occasion the Snows drove across Europe to his home in their camper van with a large ovoid granite boulder from a local Cornish beach weighing them down.

The Snows were devoted to promoting the life and work of Graham, and in 1999 they brought out The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of WS Graham. Publication was met with enthusiastic critical acclaim; Harold Pinter called it "a brilliant collection". It is, arguably, this book that will stand as Michael's major legacy rather than his own artwork.

Michael and Margaret were tireless in assisting and encouraging the tide of researchers who made their way to Stonemark, their home on the edge of Dartmoor. It gave them immense satisfaction to see that, largely thanks to their efforts, Graham is now widely considered one of the great masters of 20th-century poetry. My researches into postwar St Ives artists led me to Michael and Margaret 12 years ago, and they generously shared their wealth of knowledge with me.

Margaret died in 2009. He is survived by their son, Justin.


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June 08 2012

Yoko Ono profile: from John Lennon to a Wish Tree

An artist for the age of Occupy is given a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London

The most famous thing anyone ever said about Yoko Ono was, inevitably, said by John Lennon, and for years it held true. He called her "the world's most famous unknown artist, everyone knows her name, but no one knows what she actually does".

As the artist, musician, film-maker and peace activist nears 80, that could be changing. After decades demonised as the witch who destroyed the Beatles she is emerging from the shadow of that complicated personal history.

Since a groundbreaking exhibition in New York in 2001 re-established her reputation, she has come back into focus as a significant artist, winning the accolade of the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2009 Venice Biennale. New generations of artists have discovered her as an inspirational figure.

Basement Jaxx, Flaming Lips and Lady Gaga have collaborated with her in recent years. Younger visual artists as different as Jeff Koons, Pipilotti Rist and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster cite her as an influence; the photographer and film-maker Sam Taylor-Wood even jokingly calls herself an "obsessed fan".

This summer the artist – a tiny figure, usually to be seen wearing trademark sunglasses and hat – will be the focus of a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

According to Julia Peyton-Jones, co-director of the gallery, it is her prescience as an artist that makes her an intriguing figure for today. "As her relationship with the Beatles fades into the past her own reputation is crystallising. What is so extraordinary is that her work chimes with the times we live in now. Her activism is immensely relevant for today, in the age of Occupy."

Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim, organised the 2001 exhibition at New York's Japan Society. She says Ono's importance is only just being fully appreciated "after 40 years of her being dismissed – either as a Japanese artist, or a woman artist". She adds: "What makes her so slippery is that she is so wide-ranging. She is a musician and a poet, a peace activist and a performance artist, a maker of objects and a conceptual artist – and married to John Lennon."

The sheer breadth of her output, says Munroe, has taxed curatorial and critical skills. But, she says, Ono's originality cannot be underestimated, even though it has often been unrecognised.

"She was the first artist, in 1964, to put language on the wall of the gallery and invite the viewer to complete the work. She was the first artist to cede authorial authority to the viewer in this way, making her work interactive and experimental. That was the radical move of art in the 1960s."

Ono's energy remains undimmed and she continues to make new work and harness new technology. Her Twitter followers number 2.3 million. Recent works include her Imagine Peace tower (2007), a column of laser-light on an island near Reykjavik, and My Mummy Was Beautiful (2004), an image of breasts and vagina that was exhibited on posters around the city of Liverpool, causing controversy in some quarters.

She was born in 1933 into a wealthy Japanese family firmly ensconced in the ruling classes; her father was a banker. She began piano tuition at two and was educated at a specialist music school as her family shuttled between New York and Tokyo. War brought unfamiliar deprivations to the aristocratic family. In 1945 she took charge of her siblings, at the age of 12, when they were evacuated to the countryside after the capital's fire bombing. They struggled to eat. Her father was imprisoned in a Saigon concentration camp.

After the war Ono completed her education, becoming the first woman accepted to read philosophy at Gakushuin University. The family moved to New York, where she studied at Sarah Lawrence College, and, in 1956, she married the composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. By this time Ono was discovering a downtown scene of musicians, composers and artists, with John Cage and La Monte Young key figures.

After the collapse of her relationship with Ichiyanagi she married the American producer and art promoter Anthony Cox, and they had a daughter, Kyoko.

By the early 1960s Ono was working on the periphery of the neo-Dadaist Fluxus group, organising performances and happenings in her Chambers Street loft in Tribeca.

A key work was her book Grapefruit, first published in 1964, which has artworks framed as sets of instructions, or "event scores"; as such it is an important early example of conceptual art. (One example, entitled Painting to Exist Only When It's Copied Or Photographed, runs: "Let people copy or photograph your paintings. Destroy the originals.")

Another significant work of this period was Cut Piece, a performance work in which Ono invited the audience to take scissors and snip away her clothes as she sat, silent and still. The critic Michael Bracewell notes: "It is amazing how well that piece has lasted. When you see film of the piece done originally, she seems so vulnerable as a young woman, especially a young Asian woman. There are extraordinary undertones – submissiveness, the idea of the geisha. Enacted, it becomes incredibly tense."

Bracewell saw the piece when it was re-done in Paris in 2003. "The piece had automatically updated itself. It had become a piece about celebrity. The place was crammed to the gills, a couple of rows full of gilded young people, and absolutely no security. There she was, this elegant woman in her 70s and anyone could approach her with a bloody great pair of scissors."

For Munroe, Cut Piece was "absolutely revolutionary. "The idea that the artist's body in time and space is itself a work of art was totally radical."

In 1966 Ono held a show at the Indica Gallery, London. John Dunbar was the gallery's director. "I introduced John and Yoko," he recalls. "I was a friend of John and Paul, and suggested they come in; I thought John would enjoy it. Yoko had never heard of John. I had to explain that he was a rich person who might buy something … It wasn't immediately clear that anything was going to happen. She is a strong woman. John had never met anyone like her."

After two years they got together. But the corollary was that Cox, after a custody battle for Kyoko that Ono won, effectively kidnapped the child, and Ono did not see her at all between the ages of eight and 31.

Ono's union with Lennon of course represents the pivotal moment in her life. According to Bracewell an immediate effect was her artistic influence on Lennon – which also served to damage her, since she was "regarded as the demon face of the avant-garde and, particularly in Britain, what she did was largely seen as unintelligible".

Sean, Lennon and Ono's son, was born in 1975, five years before his father was gunned down on the street outside the Dakota Building in New York . Ono still lives there with her superb collection of art that includes Magrittes and Warhols. And mother and son have  collaborated on music projects in recent years.

An often expressed doubt surrounding Ono is that the peace-and-love mantra she expresses through her art and through her activism can look like a relic of a lost time, a statement stuck in the era of the 1960s.

For example, her Wish Tree, which she has instigated in various locations and will appear outside the Serpentine this summer, is a tree on which members of the public are invited to attach labels on which they have scribbled their wishes.

Bracewell, who believes Ono has suffered from "a sexist and racist response to her from people who regarded her as a giggling, inscrutable Japanese woman who had stolen one of our national treasures", argues that to regard such works as childish is unfair.

"Why would we have a problem with Yoko doing peace and love when we are quite happy for the Beatles to sing All You Need Is Love?" he says.

Perhaps Ono has, in the end, more right than most to tackle hatred and violence in her own way. She experienced war in Japan firsthand; her husband was shot down; her life was clearly soured by hatred directed at her from some Beatles fans.

It is her resilience in the face of disaster that, for the musician Antony Hegarty – who has collaborated with her on performances – makes her a personal as well as an artistic model. "She has  shown me, by her power of example, how to stand by one's values, even in the face of fear," he says. "She  has endured brutal storms and never surrendered."

Munroe agrees. The peace-and-love message, she says, is authentic. "She really believes in love as the transformative energy in the world. That's her faith."

Potted profile

Born 13 February 1933

Age 79

Career Ono has worked in the avant garde of the art world since the 1950s, her practice taking in music, film, poetry and performance – including her two famous week-long "bed-ins" with her husband John Lennon, a twist on the sit-in.

High point Meeting Lennon at a preview of her exhibition at Indica gallery, London, in November 1966; also her 2001 retrospective Yes Yoko Ono, which cemented her work's reputation.

Low point Ono was vilified for decades for breaking up the Beatles and even after Lennon's death in 1980 attracted little public sympathy. Also suffered the abduction of her daughter Kyoko by her second husband, Anthony Cox.

What she says "No one person could have broken up a band, especially one the size of the Beatles."

What they say "I learned everything from her … That's what people don't understand. She's the teacher and I'm the pupil." John Lennon, 1980


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May 09 2012

From the archive, 9 May 1994: Edvard Munch's stolen Scream recovered in undercover sting

Scotland Yard detectives played a key role in the undercover sting operation which recovered Edvard Munch's stolen masterpiece from a south Norway hotel
From the archive blog: Edvard Munch's worthless art

Scotland Yard detectives played a key role in the undercover sting operation which recovered the stolen Norwegian painting, The Scream, it was revealed yesterday.

Norwegian police found Edvard Munch's masterpiece virtually undamaged at a hotel in south Norway on Saturday. Three Norwegians were later arrested.

According to the daily newspaper Dagenbladet, two Metropolitan Police officers fooled the thieves by pretending they would buy the painting for £250,000.

Norwegian police had contacted London shortly after the theft and the Norwegians worked closely with Chief Inspector John Butler, head of Scotland Yard's Arts and Antiques squad.

"While John Butler worked with [Norwegian police inspector] Leif Lier...two of Butler's agents had already been in touch with people who claimed they could get hold of The Scream," the paper said.

Scotland Yard issued a brief statement confirming it had co-operated but left the Norwegians to release any further details. Knut Berg, director of the National Gallery in Oslo, said the painting had a microscopic pinprick but he described the work as undamaged.

"The thieves must have handled it with extreme caution," he said. "It was wonderful to see the painting again and we hope to have it back on the wall on Wednesday," Mr Berg said.

Two men, filmed by video, carried out the theft on February 12, on the day of the opening of the Winter Olympics at Lillehammer. They smashed a window, grabbed the painting and disappeared in less than a minute.

"I am extremely happy and relieved that one of our greatest and most well-known art treasures has been recovered. This has been an eye-opener," said minister of culture, Aase Kleveland.

The painting, which art experts say would be impossible for thieves to sell on the open market, was found in Aasgaarstrand, a beach resort where Munch had a cottage and where he painted some of his most famous works.

British police are in the forefront of tracking down Europe's stolen art, partly because an estimated 60% of it ends up in London.

[A pastel version of The Scream sold for a record $119.9m (£74m) at an auction in New York on 3 May.]


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April 02 2012

Nares Craig obituary

My father, Nares Craig, has died aged 94. An architect by training, he worked as a senior civil servant for the Building Research Station (now the Building Research Establishment) for nearly 30 years. During his time there he developed the low-cost Brecast building system, which was used widely in earthquake and hurricane-prone regions. The majority of his work was directed at improving conditions and alleviating housing shortages in poorer communities throughout the developing world. This meant a lot of travel, and Nares was proudest of his time in Chile, where he got to know Salvador Allende only weeks before the president was toppled by the Pinochet coup.

Cameron Nares Craig was born in the week of the Russian Revolution. He was educated at Charterhouse, Surrey, and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became one of the "night climbers" of Cambridge during the 1930s. A strong believer in peace and disarmament, Nares became a conscientious objector when the second world war broke out, though by this time he was also a dedicated communist and, along with many of his peer group, he joined up in 1941 after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.

After a spell in the ranks, he served as a captain in the Royal Engineers and, while commanding tanks in Europe, won awards for bravery and redesigning the Bailey mobile bridge, which the army used to great effect to cross the Rhine.

During the war, Nares met Thora, a nurse and firebrand trade unionist who had recently returned from the International Brigades in Spain. They married in 1946. Thora was the love of his life and his political soulmate; their relationship lasted for more than 50 years, until her death in 1999.

In his youth, Nares knew figures such as Virginia Woolf, Clough Williams-Ellis and HG Wells. Later in life, he met and befriended many remarkable socialists, communists and revolutionaries, including Paul Robeson, Melina Mercouri and Cheddi Jagan.

Politics and family were the constants of his life. Nares is survived by his son Jonathan and myself, eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. His elder daughter, Tina, died two years ago.


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March 23 2012

From the archive, 23 March 1960: Royal collection open to public

Originally published in the Guardian on 23 March 1960

London seems likely to have a new national and international art gallery in Buckingham Palace by about Christmas 1961. If Parliament agrees -it would seem churlish not to - the Queen is willing to open a small part of Buckingham Palace for displays of the royal collection, the finest private collection of Old Masters in the world.
The idea is that the private chapel of the palace, destroyed by a bomb during the war, should be rebuilt to contain a smaller chapel and a small art gallery. For special occasions the gallery could be used as an extension of the chapel. The cost of the proposed rebuilding is £40,000.
The consequences would be that for the first time her subjects would be able to enter the Queen's home and inspect selections of paintings and other works of art brought into the gallery from the palace and from other royal residences. Parts of Windsor Castle and the gardens of Sandringham and Balmoral are opened to the public at certain times, but nothing of the kind has happened up to now at Buckingham Palace.

The royal collections are generous and the most important paintings are so liberally lent out that few of the greatest items have not been seen in public in the last twenty years. There were 80 "royal" items in the last great Italian Exhibition in Burlington House, where - ten years ago - there was also a memorable show drawn exclusively from the royal collections. The main glories are Canalettos, Venetian masterpieces, Van Dycks, Holbeins, Italian Primitives, Reynoldses, Gainsboroughs and the Lely series of "beauties" and "admirals". They are well distributed among royal residences. Art historians have often speculated about what would have been the situation if Cromwell had not had his famous (or some say infamous) sale of Charles the First's collection, remnants of which are still among the main treasures.
When the new gallery is organised it will, of course, need a curator and a catalogue or series of catalogues. The surveyor of the Queen's pictures is Sir Anthony Blunt, who is also director of the Courtauld Institute. His deputy is Mr Oliver Millar, and between them they have all the knowledge needed to produce the catalogue. It might seem logical for Mr Millar to have day-to-day charge of the Buckingham Palace gallery, for he already does so much of the sort of work that would be involved.


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December 21 2011

From the archive, 21 December 1942: Stamp fever in wartime

Originally published in the Manchester Guardian on 21 December 1942

A strange thing has occurred in the ranks of the folk we call collectors. This time it has come to the stamp collectors, and it is a fever of urgent buying – we won't call it panic buying. It has as yet only touched the inner circle, the experts. It has moved the outer circle, the serious collectors, to protective action, but it has set aflame the vast horde of gatherers, as we might call them, the people who know little about the stamps they gather but who form the great bulk of the hobby's disciples and make possible the industry that has grown up around them.

An infective urge has come to the gatherers – the schoolboys, the students, the office clerks, the casual men about town – and they have descended upon the stamp shops and the dealers and are buying up everything in the lower grade of stamps. Sheets of stamps are put into the shop windows and they are picked almost clean in the space of a day.

Most of the shops which sell the stamps know nothing about them. Stamps are put on sale on a commission basis (and very handsome it is, too) by the stamp dealers and companies. Just now we are witnessing stationers and booksellers and others giving a whole window to stamp display where previously it was a difficulty for their salesmen to find their stamp stock at all. No questions are asked in these shops; it is take it or leave it and the salesmen look admiringly at the buyer. The salesmen think there may be a hidden treasure somewhere and leave it at that, while the gatherers back their fancy in the true spirit of the turf.

It is bewildering, for we are told that the same thing is going on all over Europe. I quote from a notice in the press, "… thousands of pounds are being paid for valueless common currency stamps by people who know absolutely nothing about stamps." They are listening to the voice of rumour, which whispers that such and such a commodity – in this case stamps – is going to be scarce and valuable, and so they decide to be in on the ground floor and make it a corner.

The big stamp dealers are getting jumpy. They are at a loss to know the drill for the occasion. If they open their stocks to the crowd these common stamps – the backbone of the trade – will in truth become scarce. If they hold them all back there will be no trade at all.

If this gold rush goes on there will soon be no good stamps for sale. The war has created a shortage for many stamps, and though the accumulations still in the dealers' hands must be very great, in self-preservation they cannot unload to meet the demand.

J. H. B.


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December 15 2011

From the archive, 15 December 1913: Mona Lisa's return: Theft from Louvre explained

Originally published in the Manchester Guardian on 15 December 1913

The report that Leonardo da Vinci's famous portrait of "Mona Lisa" has been found in Florence seems amply confirmed.

What is known of the theft from the Paris Louvre in August, 1911, and the discovery in Florence last week, is that an Italian named Perugia a few days ago attempted to sell the picture to a Florentine dealer. When arrested he said he had been employed for several years at the Louvre. One day when alone in the room where the "Mona Lisa" hung he broke up the frame and hid the panel under his blouse. By that means he was able to remove it unobserved. Recently he wrote to the dealer in Florence and with him opened the negotiations which led to his arrest.

When the news reached Paris, where Perugia had once been sentenced for some petty offence, the police searched their records and found that the markings of the man's thumb corresponded exactly with an impression made by the thief on the broken frame which he left behind.

The "Giornale d'Italia" has received an interview with Signor Geri, who is director of an "Ancient and Modern Art Gallery" there. Signor Geri states that in a letter from Paris, Perugia, who signed himself "Leonard," gave him the fullest assurances regarding the authenticity of the picture and promised to allow him a reduction of 25 per cent on the price for the benefit of the public galleries of Italy. Signor Geri and Professor Poggi, to whom the letter was shown, thought it was a joke.

On December 10 "Leonard" called on Signor Geri. He at once asked Signor Geri to come to his hotel, and, showing him the picture, asked 500,000 francs for it. Signor Geri agreed, and asked him to come next day to the Uffizi Gallery to verify the picture. "Leonard" arrived a little late, and the three repaired to his hotel, where he showed them the picture. After examining it Professor Poggi said that it must be conveyed to the Uffizi for identification. "Leonard" consented, and took the "Gioconda", wrapped in red cloth, under his arm. They drove to the Uffizi, where the work's authenticity was established.

Perugia was arrested in an hotel just as he was coming downstairs. Signor Tarantelli, chief of police, said he had interrogated Perugia at length. He was convinced that the statements made by Perugia were sincere. In his opinion Perugia is not abnormal, but a simple fellow who did not altogether understand the importance of his action.

[Vincenzo Perugia was hailed a national hero by the Italian press. He served seven months in jail.]


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November 27 2011

Eve King obituary

My mother, Eve King, who has died aged 95, was a widely respected art historian who taught and lectured at the University of London, the National Gallery, the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum. She gave a successful series of talks for Radio 3's Painting of the Month strand in the 1960s and opened up new worlds of art for her many students.

Eve's thinking about art was passionate and incisive, stimulating enthusiasm. She campaigned tirelessly for her favourite painters, including JMW Turner, and was a prime mover in the creation of the Turner Society in 1975.

Born Eve Davies, she had an art-loving father who was a city accountant, and an energetic, business-like mother. Eve went to Commonweal Lodge, a school in Purley, south London. In 1938, she became one of the first women to achieve an MA in art history from the Courtauld.

Eve married Alec Hyatt King in 1943, after they had met hill-walking. She was at the Board of Trade while he worked at Bletchley Park. Alec enjoyed a distinguished career in the British Library, heading the music department and publishing widely on music. Eve was a tower of strength for him, typing and editing his articles and books.

She was a fine and supportive mother and, once her children were old enough, she resumed her professional career teaching art history. She lectured and travelled widely for the National Association of Decorative and Fine Art Societies, whose foundation she helped to stimulate, and was a founder council member of the Friends of the Royal Academy.

Friendly and forthright, Eve believed in courtesy, honesty and integrity. She enjoyed a long retirement in Southwold, Suffolk, where she was an active member of the community, involved in the Women's Institute, the Red Cross and the Southwold Decorative and Fine Art Society among many other organisations. Her life showed what can be achieved with hard work, application and a first-class mind.

Alec died in 1995. Eve is survived by me and my brother, David; her sister, Joyce; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.


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November 07 2011

Appreciation: Adrian Berg obituary

Brian Morley writes: Adrian Berg (obituary, 5 November) and I were exact contemporaries in the painting school at the Royal College of Art, part of an intake which offered a wide range of backgrounds, interests and aspirations. Adrian was one of the most interesting and entertaining students.

We were, I think, the first year to benefit from the programme of liberal studies introduced by Robin Darwin as part of his vision of the college as the art-school equivalent of Oxford and Cambridge. Liberal studies consisted largely of lectures and seminars given by visiting tutors from other disciplines. These were not universally popular with students. Adrian felt he had done all that and just wanted to get on with painting. When we were invited to read Aristotle's Poetics prior to a seminar discussion, Adrian argued and, as he put it, "made mincemeat of the tutor". As a result he gained the reputation of an arrogant bolshie intellectual and troublemaker. A witty and often dangerous opponent in any debate, he was always regarded with some suspicion by the painting tutors, and left the RCA with a 3rd class degree.

In 1961 he moved in to his studio/flat in Gloucester Gate and for the next 20 years or so rarely painted anything other than the view from his window. If Regent's Park through all seasons and moods appeared to some critics a narrow one, painting was for Adrian "a process which has to be repeated, comparing and correcting".

He had become increasingly frail in recent years and I saw him only infrequently, but whenever we did meet he was as engaging a conversationalist as ever. His love of gossip ensured a large fund of mischievous, and often scandalous, anecdotes about his contemporaries and other painters, which he clearly enjoyed as much as his audience. Many, like me, will cherish the memory of his characteristic bellow of laughter as his jokes concluded.


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October 11 2011

Anna Adams obituary

My friend Anna Adams, who has died aged 85, was a poet and artist. She was a writer of real talent who, although reasonably well published by small presses, has yet to receive her due from the wider poetic world.

She was born in London and went to Harrow Art School and Hornsey College of Art, where she met her husband Norman, who was to become a distinguished painter and keeper of the Royal Academy. Anna's own paintings were small, delicate watercolours of flowers and landscapes; she also made rather bolder ceramics of animals.

It was poetry, however, into which she poured her main creative energies. From the first, she swam against the tide in writing metrical rhyming poems of considerable dexterity (as she put it "a formalist rather than a free-verser"). She also distrusted the "confessional" school and, apart from a handful of poems composed after Norman's death in 2005, eschewed the personal statement.

Her main publisher was Peterloo, which brought out five collections between 1979 and 2004, but she also published a book of new and selected poems, Green Resistance, with Enitharmon in 1996. There were two prose, poetry and art compilations of real distinction in Island Chapters (1991) and Life on Limestone (1994). The former stems from the decade that she and her husband and their two small children spent on the island of Scarp in the Outer Hebrides. The latter is a reflection of upwards of 30 years living in a converted farmhouse in the Yorkshire Dales.

The poet Anne Stevenson has spoken of Anna's "chief virtues of immediacy and intelligence and keen sense of humour which make [her] popular among many readers". These qualities can be observed in this excerpt from one of the Island Chapters poems:

The Sabbath closes doors and hushes speech,

manacles hands, gyves feet, suppresses each

workaday wish for play, deserts the beach,

while people from the seashore houses wear

their Sundaybest expressions, oil their hair,

and walk in polished boots to meet for prayer.

Anna is survived by two sons, Ben and Jacob, and two grandchildren, Anjana and Ammar.


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August 11 2011

Gordon Fazakerley obituary

My cousin Gordon Fazakerley, artist and poet, who has died in his adopted country, Denmark, aged 74, spent more than five decades there, but remained a Merseysider at heart.

Born in Widnes, he eschewed the family grocery business to enrol, in the face of family opposition, at Liverpool School of Art and then the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. He had his first solo exhibition in 1959 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, organised by Herbert Read and Lawrence Alloway when Gordon was doing his national service. In 1961, using winnings from his part-time bookmaker's job, he travelled to Sweden and came into contact with Jørgen Nash and the Bauhaus situationist group, becoming a founder member at Asger Jorn's farm in Drakabygget and editor of the breakaway Situationist Times.

It was there that he met Ulla Borchsensius, a journalist who had gone to interview the group; they married and settled in Copenhagen. Gordon played the role of outsider in Danish art, unaffected by events within it, his paintings in the style of postwar abstract impressionism based on literature and music.

He went on to have many exhibitions, in Denmark principally, culminating in a major retrospective in 2000 at the Museum Jorn in Silkeborg, but also in Sweden, Germany and Britain, where most recently he was part of the 2007 Tate Liverpool exhibition Centre of the Creative Universe: Liverpool and the Avant Garde.

Gordon kept his British passport, his love of pubs (visiting the UK regularly for a "fix" and exhibitions) and northern dishes (he was an excellent cook), his Widnes accent (he never learned to speak Danish), but most essentially his Merseyside humour. He was a fan of Monty Python; his humour could best be described as unpredictable, rude, disrespectful, non-PC and acidic. He had a unique take on life and was great company.

He is survived by Ulla, his children, Susan and David, and two grandchildren.


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Terence Baxter obituary

My brother, Terence Baxter, who has died aged 79, was one of London's leading antiques dealers and an expert on 18th-century English furniture, which he collected. He was also a keen golfer, with a raft of trophies. Not that he would have considered any of this remarkable, which was what helped to make him remarkable. To be fastidious in a luxury business that had its less salubrious side, or to play a sport with fairness and integrity, were simply what one did: a slightly old-fashioned view, though hopefully never outdated.

Above all, Terry was not preachy. He might have raised his eyebrows at the latest fashion worn by his beloved granddaughter, Tara, but I never heard him be judgmental of others. He preferred to lead by example and let others follow their own path. It led to a generally happy life, spoiled only by a much-hated period of military service just before the Suez crisis, served in Alexandria.

Terry was born in Wandsworth, south London, 18 months after our older brother, Roy. The family later moved to Ashtead, in Surrey, where Terry attended Ewell Castle school. He and Roy joined the family's antiques business in the mid-40s. HC Baxter and Sons had been founded by our father in the 1930s in Fulham Road. The firm specialised in English furniture primarily of the Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton periods, and stopped with little or no acknowledgement of anything later than the Regency period – and certainly no Victoriana.

The family business attracted buyers from all over the world, but primarily in the US and the UK. As the firm expanded, it moved to a purpose-built property a few yards away, designed to replicate an elegant four-storey town house. Terry later passed on the business to his son, Gary, but he continued to attend antiques fairs, notably Grosvenor House's annual event.

Terry's hobby was studying racing form and he maintained that he was a financial winner: we seldom heard of any losses. It was characteristic of him that when one Christmas period he enjoyed a substantial win on a triple bet, he divided the winnings equally between Gary; his daughter, Teresa; his wife of 55 years, Joyce; their family bank account; and a charity.

His other enthusiasm was for cinema (his children were named after the actors Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright) and for this I will always be thankful. I accompanied him at a very tender age to the local cinemas, and was raised on a diet of gangster movies and film noir, nourishing a family addiction which still persists.

He is survived by Joyce, Gary and Teresa, grandchildren Andrew, Benjamin and Tara, and myself.


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July 10 2011

Flyovers: the hot new venue

Forget parks and piazzas, the most fashionable destination could be hidden in your local underpass

Mention open-air cinema and images of parks, piazzas and country houses spring to mind. Now, though, you can add urban flyovers to this list.

Located in the undercroft where the A12 crosses the Lea Navigational Canal in East London, Folly for a Flyover is screening films every weekend until the end of the month. The unusual venue is certainly not picnic-hamper territory. But that hasn't deterred thousands of people from walking or cycling (despite its car-heavy location there is no parking) to watch movies from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Tron as part of the arts festival CREATE.

Volunteers from Assemble, the team who last year turned a derelict Islington petrol station into a picture palace, have constructed a temporary building on the site, while screenings and performances will take place outside.

And it is far from the only event to be hidden in our underpasses. This month the pop-up street table tennis project PING! has chosen Spaghetti Junction as one of its Birmingham locations, while a few miles away jazz musician Soweto Kinch is finalising plans for the fourth Flyover Show, a live music event on 20 August under the A41 at Hockley Circus.

Kinch, who lives locally, wanted to reclaim the graffiti-covered space for public use. Organiser Clare Edwards admits the setting has technical challenges but there is an added bonus. When it rained last year "it was like being under a great big concrete umbrella".


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June 09 2011

12 September 2005: The launch of the Berliner Guardian

The launch of the new Berliner format sees the Guardian become the UK's first full-colour national newspaper and the first UK national newspaper to adopt this size.


Click on the article to read the full piece by Alan Rusbridger


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May 27 2011

The Saturday interview: Sarah Lucas

Sarah Lucas was the wildest of the Young British artists, partying hard and making art that was provocative and at times genuinely shocking. Then as Emin and Hirst went stratospheric, she slipped off to Suffolk, where she's been ever since ...

It is surprising to find someone whose most well-known work is so urban – kebabs, fried eggs, dirty public toilets, grimy, paint-splattered walls, burned-out cars; so saturated with the sense of the London she grew up in – tucked away down a long country lane, behind a Baptist church in Suffolk. Even the local cab drivers seem to have a hard time finding the house, and so Sarah Lucas waits outside in the sunshine, barefoot, in a torn blue dress, dust caught in her unbrushed hair.

Inside, the main room is long and low. Twowalls are made of glass, so the place is full of fields and sky and light. On the large dining table, surrounded by mismatched wooden chairs, sits half a glass of wine covered in clingfilm. There's a wood-burning stove, and bits of sculpture everywhere – a couple of large marrows sculpted in brass, another of concrete; a skull with gold-tipped teeth (like Lucas's own, they flash when she smiles); a pair of pert round breasts, perched like jellies atop shelves of music; small casts of her boyfriend Julian Simmons's penis, made for her show Penetralia, which opened in 2008; a big painting by Raymond Pettibon; huge red platform shoes and black fetish boots that she will cast in concrete and show in Krems, Austria in July; a general, seaside sense of driftwood and flotsam.

Lucas curls herself onto the large leather sofa and lights the first of a succession of rollups. She is nearly 50, but there is something girlish about her still – the angular kind of girl who will run through fields barefoot, who thinks nothing of getting her hands dirty (Lucas's fingers are stubby, workman-like); a grownup, slightly more masculine version of Sissy Spacek in Terrence Malick's Badlands. She talks directly, and thoughtfully, giving the sense, even when she has clearly had to explain a similar point before, of thinking it through again. Sometimes she makes direct eye-contact; more often she dips her head and hides behind her hair, or concentrates on her rollups, but she answers every question.

In the garden, a raised swimming pool glints in the sun (Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, who built the house as a bolthole, believed in the curative properties of a cold plunge every morning), and her new work, destined for the Aldeburgh festival next month, hangs in the glass-walled studio – literally hangs: the new pieces are mobiles, assemblages of buckets and plastic chairs and bulbous breasts and her trademark stuffed tights, "Bunnies", as she calls them, conjuring up a silent "playboy": certainly they have a playboy bunny's disturbing sexual passivity, sliding down chairs, ending in floppy pointed tips — no way of running away on those.

She has said that, making the first Bunny, she got that "'Eureka!' feeling, [where] you want to grab a beer or suddenly laugh, and smoke fags really fast and phone people up and say, you've got to get over here!"; more usually, she says, her experience of making art is an organic, random thing – playing with forms, looking for rightness.

Recently, she has begun to experiment with an evolution of the Bunnies: "Nuds" keep the sense of stuffed flesh-coloured tights, but are larger and more disturbing. She extrudes them from toilet bowls, hangs them from concrete blocks, wraps them round themselves, so they look like intestines, buttocks, breasts. The word comes from a phrase of her mother's, "in the nuddy", meaning naked. "She used to do things like sunbathe naked." She laughs, smoker-husky. "I did have an idea of putting my mum in it somehow. A bit."

Surprisingly, perhaps, for those who assume that, particularly earlier in her career, she always began with an in-your-face feminist statement, her starting point is generally the materials: what she can get in a particular place and time – food, concrete blocks, stockings, human bodies. (Of course, she was also perfectly aware of the feminist content, what it said about the disgusted-attracted-contemptuous male gaze, but she preferred the art to ask the questions, discomfit, not preach.) Or herself – the famous portraits of her sitting, legs splayed, fried eggs covering her breasts, or of her smoking a cigarette into a long ash, scowling in concentration like a female James Dean. Or people very close to her – the man in Still Life (1992), in which a faceless male holds a banana to his crotch – is Gary Hume, then her boyfriend.

Lucas was at the centre of the phenomenon that became the YBAs — showing at Freeze in 1988, in Sensation in 1997, partying hard and recklessly and well, at the Groucho Club, or at the Colony Rooms in Soho, becoming, as the writer Gordon Burn put it, "the most unabashedly all-balls-out, rock'n'roll" of them all.

But it wasn't always like that. Lucas, whose father was a milkman and whose mother, for a while, a part-time gardener and cleaner (she used to accompany her parents to people's houses, ogling at the furniture, the carpets, the coffee percolators), grew up on a council estate in Holloway, north London. When I quote the view that the Sensation show was a kind of coming-of-age for working-class women artists, she folds in on herself, hugging her chest, and denies the generalisation. "Someone like Tracey [Emin] had a background of quite a lot of ups and downs, really, in terms of fortune. [And] her dad was a sort of businessman. Whereas my family – they had absolutely no ambition. It just wasn't there. I remember my mum being absolutely against homework, 'because you're there all day anyway'."

She left school at 16 and at 17 was pregnant: "I suddenly realised," she once said, "if I had a child now, I would be in this environment for the next 16 years and not going anywhere." She had an abortion, and sold her record collection ("I didn't want anything I couldn't put in a suitcase. And I sort of thought I'd bought my freedom in that way") and hitchhiked through Europe, looking, fruitlessly, for an idea of what to do. When she returned her mother was working in a play centre, and got her a job. "I met somebody there who'd been to art college. I didn't know about art college before that. That's when I thought, 'Oh, that's something I could do.'"

But Goldsmith's didn't initially open any doors. "The first wave of people taken up by galleries were all boys. A couple of years later that really changed, but the initial wave was Gary, Angus [Fairhurst, who later became her partner], Matt Collinshaw, Damien [Hirst], Michael Landy." She would go to openings, and fancy dinners, and come back to Hume late at night, drunk and raging at the unfairness of it all. "I had real ego problems. That seems quite harsh, but it did seem like all of my friends were doing quite well apart from me. I used to get really angry about it." Also, it seemed to her the only way to succeed was to have one idea and to do it to death, and, in disillusion, she decided to give up doing art at all. Which seemed to take the pressure off: suddenly she found herself tinkering with the kinds of ideas she has since made her own; her first solo show, Penis Nailed to a Board (1992), made her famous: "I had a great sense of achievement about it, that it was something different. But of course that gets assimilated too, very quickly."

The next year she set up a shop on Bethnal Green Road in East London, with Tracey Emin. They sold decorated key-rings, wire penises, T-shirts emblazoned with "I'm so fucky", or "fucking useless". "It was a certain kind of titillation the shop offered," the critic Matthew Collings has written, "sexual but also hopeless, destructive, foolish, funny, sad." And they built an intense friendship, "dangerous," as Emin once said. "There was electricity . . . Sarah's friends have said that when we were together it was like white noise." They are often still carelessly linked together, even though they see each other very little these days and many would describe Lucas as an anti-Emin: reticent, delicate and nuanced despite the initial shock of some of her work, and, according to quite a few critics, including this paper's Adrian Searle, the better artist; a "sleeper" who has shunned the limelight in favour of concentrating on and deepening the work.

She seems both proud of this difference (she has done very few interviews, over the years, which she says is both deliberate and born of disinterest; she has now lived in Suffolk, where she doesn't read papers or art magazines, for four years) and slightly niggled by it. I ask what the sudden influx of Saatchi cash and fame in the late 90s did to them all. Her response is tangential but revealing. "You know, [Damien] would say, 'You don't put your prices up because you're scared to put your prices up'. He'd scream it at me in top volume, sometimes. I never thought for a moment of doing that – or perhaps I was just sort of defensive about it . . . I mean, I really like the idea that art is not just its value, in the same way that everything else has a value. You might make a concrete sculpture, but it might be better than that brass one" – she points at the marrows – "even if the brass is worth more. That that's not where the value is. So the idea that if you just make something out of diamonds, or something, is so antithetical – it's just vulgar, really. Not that you can't make something out of diamonds, but unless it's more beautiful than the diamonds, it's vulgar.

"But then again, if you look at Damien or Tracey, obviously they were very clear about what their gift was. I think probably both Damien and Tracey really grasped the punk thing. They realised the value of being a brat and that it does actually work. And I don't think I did. I was more . . . proper about it, or something. And so's Sadie [Coles, her friend and dealer]. I can't imagine either of us ever wearing that sort of brattishness.

"If you're only polite – is that being scared of something? I suppose not – or is that thinking you won't get it? And is that being scared?" So he really hit a nerve. "Oh yeah, he did, definitely. But perhaps not as much as it does now, just seeing him and Tracey go so far with it. Whatever you think, they've sort of proved their own point."

A sense, then, that it's not entirely easy to stay true to her own instincts, which in some ways was the real breakthrough of her first show in 1992, and the thing about her work that her admirers tend to point out. The fact that she went back to the way she made things "when I was little, just making things, because I always did, to keep myself company. I think that sort of continues – the making things to keep yourself company." And perhaps to help her through the doubts.

Then, in 2008, her ex-boyfriend Angus Fairhurst hanged himself. Lucas believes that while he had a real darkness ("I remember him saying that when he was a boy he used to lock the dog in the cupboard so it would love him when it came out") a lot of what killed him was the extreme, sudden exposure of their generation, and the inevitable pullings away, into different stratospheres of fame and fortune that followed. Now, while his death is always there, it is particularly present when things aren't going well. "It sort of affects the gremlins, really, that. In the sense that I do have doubts and when I'm putting a show together, and the day goes badly, I'm thinking this is how he must have felt."

There are a couple of weeks until her new show opens. She is happy for me to see the work in her studio, but she makes a point of saying it's a work in progress.Not claiming it's there, or good, or right, but evincing a kind of trust that it might be.


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May 16 2011

Letter: Sir Denis Mahon obituary

Julian Treuherz writes: Fortunately for the national heritage, Sir Denis Mahon (obituary, 29 April) never resorted to disposing of his collection abroad in his fight to defend free admission to national museums, but it was not an idle threat. Soon after I became keeper of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, I contacted Sir Denis, so that the Walker might benefit from his intended largesse in distributing his baroque paintings to major British galleries.

I was duly invited to visit his gloomy, austere London house, full of pictures propped up against the walls as well as hung. All flat surfaces were overflowing with piles of books, apart from a small space on the dining table where his meals were taken. Once Sir Denis was persuaded that the Walker was a worthy recipient, I was given no choice: there were three paintings, and it was all or none. Two of them were respectable second-division items, but the third was a Guercino of St John the Baptist Visited in Prison by Salome, a highly charged painting with tremendous "wall-power" despite its modest size. They were placed on long loan at the Walker, with the understanding that they would eventually become part of the collection.

However, in July 1997, the trustees of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside (now National Museums Liverpool) reluctantly brought in admission charges after a series of flat or falling grant-in-aid settlements from the Conservative government. These pressures would have been resolved had non-charging museums been able to reclaim VAT, but as soon as the decision to charge was announced, Sir Denis withdrew the paintings and placed them on loan with the National Gallery of Ireland. Subsequently the anomalous VAT rules were changed, and admission charges at national museums were outlawed, but the Guercino never came back from "abroad": it was presented to the Dublin gallery in 2008, and I will always regret its absence from the Liverpool collection.


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May 15 2011

Denis Glaser obituary

My husband, Denis Glaser, who has died of cancer aged 78, was a scientist who became a conceptual artist. Denis's extensive knowledge of materials and mechanics led to his daring and varied installations, which involved circular motion, water, video projection and sound. In the 1990s, he exhibited at many group shows and venues including the Barbican and Lisson Gallery in London, as well as in Düsseldorf, Caracas and Seoul.

Denis was born in London. He was evacuated during the second world war to live with an aunt in Argentina from the age of eight to 12. On his return to Britain, he attended William Ellis school in London. He graduated with a degree in chemistry from Oxford University in 1954 and spent the next 40 years working in the aircraft and motor industries.

He had made stoneware pottery and jewellery in his spare time and, in 1992, Denis changed direction to study fine arts at Middlesex University and Chelsea College of Art, where he gained his master's degree in 1997. Initially making figurative sculpture, Denis moved on to abstract installation art. His love of, and keen eye for, aesthetics was not his primary goal; he was far more concerned with expressing the conceptual and emotional meaning of his creations, often infused with memories.

At home in London, and at our retreat in Yorkshire, alongside being a hands-on father, Denis was perpetually engaged in DIY, ranging from plumbing, wiring, carpentry and machine and car repairs to building a harpsichord. Although reserved and often quiet in company, he was engaged in communal affairs, including our children's schools' governorship, chairing the neighbourhood association, local community radio and community action.

A secular, Liberal Jew, he nevertheless held some affection for Jewish tradition. His love of Israel led him in his later years to increasing concern about the actions of the Israeli government. He participated actively on the Board of Deputies of British Jews and with Jews for Justice for Palestinians.

Single-mindedly pursuing his various goals, typically on his bicycle, he was driven by a wish for minimum waste and maximum economy in time, resources and words: his written communications were telegraphic. Denis eschewed convention and formality but was scrupulously considerate and courteous.

He is survived by me, his children, Daniel, Michael and Eliane, and five grandchildren.


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April 08 2011

In a new place

Amanda Levete made her reputation working with in the influential architectural practice, Future Systems. She talks about her 'spectacular failures', and also her many thrilling triumphs

Amanda Levete is showing me a model of her most spectacular failure. We're standing in our stocking feet (her office, her rules) before a little box containing her and Anish Kapoor's 2002 design for the Princess Diana memorial fountain. It consists of a dinky red pillow lying in a model of the Serpentine in London's Hyde Park. White marble steps on one bank sweep down the water's edge to provide a viewpoint.

"It was so beautiful – a blood red pillow that would shoot a 15ft high dome of red water. We wanted to create a wonderful, ethereal place."

Pillows? Blood? Some critics were livid. How dare Levete's architectural practice Future Systems and Kapoor be so insensitive to the memory of her Di-ness as to produce a design that reminded them (poor flowers) of sex and death?

"The judges hated it," recalls Levete. "They asked 'Why red? Why not green?' Anish replied grandly: 'As an artist, I could never work in green.'"

"I was really pissed off we didn't get it," says Levete. But surely, I suggest, she's well out of it. Look what happened to Kathryn Gustafson's winning design: her ring of bright water faced a tsunami of press criticism; visitors injured themselves on the slippery granite or washed their dogs in streams designed for moody contemplation.

Better, sometimes, for architecture to remain unbuilt than be sullied by realisation. This isn't a trite point. It goes to the heart of Levete's formative architectural experiences. At the Architectural Association in the 1970s, Levete was taught by architects who preferred their projects to be hypothetical. "Not one of them, people like Rem Koolhaas and Nigel Coates, intended to build. When I left, I didn't know anything about building." Isn't that nuts? "You could argue it's a problem, but it's also not: it's the one moment you get to explore your creativity. I learned how to build later."

It also goes to the heart of her working relationship with her late ex-husband, Czech architect Jan Kaplický, with whom she designed two of the most remarkable pieces of recent British architecture: the 1998 Media Centre at Lord's cricket ground in London and the 2003 Selfridges department store in Birmingham. "Jan would have been happy not to build. He knew his place in history was assured through his drawings. He couldn't bear to visit the actual buildings. At Selfridges' opening, he stormed off because the finished structure wasn't as pure as the original work."

Levete, though, is more pragmatic. "I don't devalue the power of conceptual thinking, but for me the thrill of architecture is to see your ideas realised. To struggle against the problems out there and overcome them."

For Levete, 55, that creative struggle with an external constraint is one of the things that seduced her into studying architecture in the first place. "After I got expelled from school for sunbathing naked on the roof during a biology lesson at 16, I didn't know what to do. I got so embarrassed that all my friends were going to university that I did an A-level in art and art history, and a foundation year at art school. That's when architecture came across my radar, and when it did, I realised that I work best when I'm doing something creatively, but have a boundary to push. As an artist you have to create your own boundaries. I realised I would find that difficult, whereas architecture is creative, but it has the reality of boundaries you don't create."

But sometimes those boundaries have proven insurmountable. Another of what she calls her "spectacular failures" was a recent project for the Louvre in Paris. Her design envisaged freeing the subterranean space beneath IM Pei's transparent pyramid from its role as holding pen for angry, queueing tourists. "We wanted to create space where visitors could have a moment of repose and think about what they've seen, rather than a clogged entrance hall."

But, again, her ideas were not well received. "The judges told me, 'You're not playing the game.' I knew enough French to say: 'I didn't realise it was a game.' So bureaucratic! For me, architecture is about not playing a game by the rules, it's about challenging the brief you're given – pushing boundaries."

Enough about Levete's (alleged) failures. We're meeting because Amanda Levete Architects has just won the competition to built an extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum. It will be the biggest new art space in London since Tate Modern – a 1,500 sq metre gallery for temporary exhibitions with a new entrance to the building.

Isn't it a poisoned chalice? Seven years ago the V&A abandoned Daniel Libeskind's provocative Spiral extension plan. "It had got through planning and then there was a storm that made the V&A change its mind," says Levete. "But, no, I don't think that will happen to us." That storm included journalist William Rees-Mogg describing Libeskind's plan as a "disaster for civilisation". What does Levete think of Libeskind's plan? "It was iconic, but the time for iconic buildings has passed." Levete met the V&A's new brief by producing a subtler, indeed scarcely perceptible, piece of architecture than Libeskind's strutting, jutting extension, one she argues will create an "iconic space rather than be an iconic building".

Her design takes its cue from the local authority's proposed pedestrianisation of Exhibition Road. "That street will be thronged with people. Our idea is to encourage them to drift in. We want to break down the separation between street and museum. We will draw visitors in from Exhibition Road through a colonnade into a large, light-filled public courtyard, and down into the galleries."

Levete says a lot of the thinking that went into the failed Louvre bid was recycled for the V&A project. There, too, she was concerned with flows of people and light into a subterranean space. "The gallery space can either be flooded with dramatic daylight, or the glass painted black to provide the low light levels that the V&A needs for the delicate materials they sometimes exhibit."

Her aim, she says, in architecture, is to change the way its users interact. "The point of architecture is to contribute to the culture of a city or the culture of a nation. Architecture changes the way you see yourself, the way others see you. It should be respected for that."

But it often isn't. Levete is furious about education secretary Michael Gove's disparaging remarks about her profession. He recently told a conference, "we won't be getting any award-winning architects" to design new schools, "because no one in this room is here to make architects richer".

"I do find it depressing he thinks we're in it to get our snouts in the trough." But does it matter if our kids are educated in schools that look like out-of-town Tescos, so long as they can add up and speak proper? "There's no necessary relationship between how beautiful school buildings are and exam results, but what Gove is saying is: let's have more mediocrity, more crap buildings, because they don't matter, right?

"Already 80% of the profession are not good. You only have to look around London to see that. Politicians too rarely root out the crap. When I think of all the mediocrity in an area of expensive real estate like the City of London, and think how little a genius like Jan – and I don't use the term lightly – saw built in his lifetime, you can't help but think two things: one, the dice are loaded against great architecture; two: work harder."

She met Kaplický in the late 1980s. He was tall, elegant, handsome and "very Czech, by which I mean passionate and pessimistic" – the very embodiment of a romantic emigre, one who came to London after Soviet tanks had crushed the Prague spring in 1968, with £50 in his pocket. He had worked in the Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers team that designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and when he met Levete had just been fired from Norman Foster's office because "he was too much of a maverick. I fell for all of that."

It's easy to overstate the couple's differences and their potential for creative symbiosis, to cast him as dour, masculine, iconoclast and tall, her as sunny, feminine, pragmatic, small – but there is something in that. She persuaded him to stop teaching and get an office where they could begin to build on the precedents established by Rogers and Foster, toward a more organic, voluptuous, formally inventive architecture. That office is the warehouse in Notting Hill where we're doing this interview.

It was here that the couple designed the Lord's media centre, an egg-like structure sheathed in aluminium panels. "That structure, probably more than any other, expresses the ideas, the aesthetic and the technical innovations that Jan had been exploring relentlessly for more than 20 years. That was also the year our son Josef was born – without question the best work we made together."

The £5.8m design almost bankrupted them, but when it won Britain's foremost architectural award, the Stirling prize, in 1999, the practice took off. But living and working together with no boundaries proved too much. "Ours was a very public falling out, played out in the office." They divorced in 2006, but carried on working in the same building. "For the last few years, there was a Berlin Wall between us in the office. Awful, awful, awful."

On 14 January 2009, Kaplický collapsed on a Prague street and died, aged 71. Hours before, he had visited his second wife Eliška and new-born daughter Johanna. Twelve days later Amanda met Eliska for the first time at Kaplický's funeral in Prague. "My greatest regret is that I didn't make peace with him in life," she said shortly after. A few months before his death, she and Kaplický had agreed he would move out of the office they had shared for 20 years, retaining Future Systems with a team of four, and she would remain in their Notting Hill warehouse as Amanda Levete Architects. "I'd hoped this would have made things easier. But we never found out if that would happen."

Levete is now married to Ben Evans, director of the London Design Festival. Amanda Levete Architects is thriving. Why are so few leading architects – you and Zaha Hadid notwithstanding – women? "Women leave to have babies and don't come back. It's a tough thing to be an architect. One of the hardest things for me is that I get described as super-tough. No man would ever be described that way – at least not as a criticism." Is it fair? "I think I'm a very benign boss. I'm also very demanding."

She shows me artists' impressions of her recent work, from a cultural centre in Lisbon to a tower block in Shoreditch. And then my favourite Amanda Levete scheme – a metro station in Naples designed with Anish Kapoor. Why couldn't they have done up my tube station, Finsbury Park? "Because there are very few visionary pieces of public patronage in Britain nowadays. Gove just expresses a more general contempt."

Shame. The design looks wonderful: one entrance looks like a rusting steel pair of lips, while the other is an aluminium form that seems to float in mid-air. It's great Levete and Kapoor will finally see a joint design realised. "Only one problem," says Levete. "For now, there are no other stations. We've designed a station for a subway line that goes nowhere." Hilarious, if a little embarrassing. No wonder some architects prefer their works to remain unbuilt.


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March 23 2011

From the archive, 23 March 1956: Lowry's work reveals new developments

Originally published in the Manchester Guardian on 23 March 1956

The seventh one-man show of paintings by L. S. Lowry opened yesterday at the Lefevre Gallery, London. Mr Lowry is a painter who has given the words "one-man show" a new and intensified meaning. He is among the most deservedly respected English painters of our time and it is impossible to explain his achievement by reference to any other artist or group of artists. His life work has been a one-man show. He has always painted his own places and his own people. He has always cultivated his own talent and paid no attention to the theories or visions of others.

The theme of industrial landscape has offered him an infinite variety of material for the making of pictures. Factory chimney-stacks, smoke-marked sky, streets crowded with pin men going to work and children playing, lamp-posts, and churches make his pattern. He does not make the mean streets look mean dramatically, nor does he try to beautify them in any way. He simply puts them into paintings. Such simplicity is a rare and powerful creative force. Sometimes he will find and paint recognisable streets which happen to fit his requirements. At other times his townscape is half-remembered, half-invented. In both cases it is unmistakably Lowry.

The present collection of 30 new paintings seems to me to show two new developments in his work. In the townscapes the treatment of space and distance is more boldly experimental than ever. This is mostly clearly visible in two excellent "recognisable" pictures called "Steps at Maryport" and "A Procession in Manchester." The composition of both is excitingly forceful and complex at the same time. The other new development is that Mr Lowry's people have come forward into the picture out of the distant streets. We see their faces close to. They are by no means flattered and yet I think Mr Lowry is painting them with considerable affection. Two groups in particular present a crowd nearer in vision than usual. The first is of a Northern race-meeting, the second of people on a promenade.

I had the impertinence to point out to Mr Lowry that his figures had very large and heavy boots and hats. But Mr Lowry is not to be drawn into argument. "Why do you think I do them like that?" he asked. It would be a bold critic who would explain to Mr Lowry why he does things. It would be a foolish one who expected him to do anything in a different way. Lowry has also in this show one or two paintings of yachts at Lytham St Annes which have a delicacy present in the town paintings, though not so easy to recognise.


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November 09 2010

Sandra Douglas obituary

In the 1980s, my friend Sandra Douglas, who has died of breast cancer aged 51, worked at Ben Kelly Design in London, where she was closely involved in projects including the Haçienda nightclub in Manchester, for Factory Records and the band New Order. The Haçienda and two other Manchester projects for Factory, the Dry 201 bar and the label's headquarters, had a deeply radical influence on the discipline of interior design. Although now demolished, the Haçienda is still used by design students as a case study.

Joining the museum designers MET Studio in 1991, Sandra brought a fresh and gutsy rawness to exhibition design. She introduced a much-needed sense of architectural rigour to the projects, making one think differently about telling stories spatially, as witnessed by her work on the Water Gallery for the National Museum of Science and Industry in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. In 1995, she and I worked together on a commission to convert L'Olympic, a cinema dating from 1927 in Nantes, France, into a club and venue.

Sandra finally settled at the design practice Johnson Naylor in London, where she was a powerful creative force. Always drawing on her deep interest in the visual arts (she couldn't walk past Tate Modern without running in for a look), she worked on a huge range of projects.

Sandra was born in Crawley, West Sussex, and educated at Rochester grammar school, followed by a foundation course at Canterbury College of Art. We met on the interior design course at Kingston Polytechnic (now Kingston University), Surrey, in 1979. Sandra's project for her finals, the visionary concept of a cinema installed within a disused gasometer, gained her a first.

Sandra had a wonderful knack of making friends, who loved her great sense of fun, her vivaciousness, her courage and her spirited ability to hold an opinion on just about anything. After a night out in the 80s, Sandra would drive us home and park in the south London street where we lived opposite each other. Saying goodnight could often take several hours as we carried on discussing, sketching out ideas, gossiping and smoking.

Even in her last days she made an impact. The abstract paintings she created, and kept with her in her room at Trinity hospice in Clapham, south-west London, are now going to be reproduced on cards for the benefit of the charity.

She is survived by her daughter, Raye, her mother, Jeanette, and her brothers Malcolm and Keith. Her father, Alec, died in 2007.


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