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July 31 2012

The story of British art: King Arthur's Round Table

The latest in Jonathan Jones's chosen British artworks is a medieval fake, the legendary Round Table of King Arthur, which embodied the absence of hierarchy among his knights





July 30 2012

London 2012: Nelson's Column gets an Olympic makeover - video

Admiral Lord Nelson gets a colourful Union Flag hat complete with an Olympic torch to mark London 2012



Brunel's Great Western railway given preservation head of steam

English Heritage lists or upgrades status of dozens of bridges, tunnels and other structures along 'god's wonderful railway'

Dozens of bridges, tunnels, viaducts and station buildings that were part of the original Great Western railway are being listed or upgraded to ensure their preservation.

Begun in 1836 and dubbed "god's wonderful railway", the structures are testament to the genius of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Victorian engineer who Kenneth Brannagh played in the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday.

One of the newly listed structures is Box tunnel in Wiltshire which was, according to railway legend, deliberately aligned by Brunel so the rising sun would shine through it every year on 9 April, his birthday. In the 20th century the tunnel was linked by secret lines and tunnels to a complex of military stores and shelters, burrowed into a hill already honeycombed with old quarry works.

The line, which brought trains thundering across England, from London to Bristol and later on into Wales – originally on the huge wheels of Brunel's broad gauge which gave a smoother ride but was more expensive and was eventually abandoned – was regarded as a marvel from the start. Brunel, typically, had a hand in everything from surveying the route to designing decorative ironwork for the stations.

Turner's famous 1844 painting Rain, Steam and Speed shows a locomotive crossing the Thames over Brunel's Maidenhead bridge, which is believed to have the longest and flattest brick arches ever built, and is being upgraded to the highest Grade I, an honour shared by only 5% of listed buildings.

The portals to other tunnels – as grand as entrances to mansions or the Roman arches Brunel sometimes consciously evoked – Fox's Wood, Saltford, Chipping Sodbury and the Severn tunnel are also being listed. So are the ventilation shafts at Chipping Sodbury – essential in the age of steam in a two-and-a-half-mile tunnel, and topped with battlements to make them look prettier from the nearby Badminton estate.

The modest footbridge at Sydney Gardens in Bath, recently identified as the last of Brunel's cast-iron bridges on the railway, is upgraded to Grade II*, along with the tunnel portals at St Anne's in Bristol and the Twerton Wood near Bath.

"It is just such a masterpiece by the mighty Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a railway project of international importance," said Emily Gee, head of listing at English Heritage. "It is highly engineered, and yet he maintains such a respect for the landscape and history of the places he takes it to."

The heritage minister, John Penrose, said: "Our railways and the historic buildings that go along with them are a wonderful and emotive part of our national heritage, symbolising for many of us a sense of romance, history and adventure. And nowhere more so, perhaps, than on the Great Western railway."

The listings and upgrades of one station – the modest stone building on the island platform at Swindon – four viaducts 12 tunnel structures and 26 bridges including the wonderfully named triple arched Silly bridge in Oxfordshire, almost double the number of listed structures on the line. Railway history enthusiasts hope the entire Great Western railway will eventually become a world heritage site, but so far the government has not formally proposed it to Unesco.

Those listed were chosen from more than 500 buildings and structures considered in extensive consultations between English Heritage, Network Rail, local authorities and railway and engineering history groups. The decision was taken against listing three stations, Maidenhead, Taplow and Newbury, and four bridges because they have been extensively altered or rebuilt.


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July 27 2012

Roman fine dining: Mildenhall Great Dish

In his ongoing tour of Britain's art treasures, Jonathan Jones is dazzled by a sumptuous serving dish from the 4th century AD


July 26 2012

Hot chips: Lullingstone Roman villa mosaics

For the latest instalment in his history of British art, Jonathan Jones takes in the stunning mosaics at this Roman villa in Kent. The house's design has been a major influence on British architecture





July 25 2012

The male Medusa: Gorgon's Head

Jonathan Jones continues his exploration of British art with a sculpted head from ancient Bath that is both a powerful image from Greek and Roman myth and a touchstone of British folklore



July 24 2012

Seeds of subversion: Little Sparta garden

The latest in Jonathan Jones's series on Britain's art heritage visits a provocative Scottish garden made by Ian Hamilton Finlay, clashing mythology and modern history





July 23 2012

Chief Joseph's shirt auctioned for $900,000

Native American war shirt that appears in Smithsonian painting had only recently resurfaced

A war shirt worn by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe that can be seen in a painting hanging in the Smithsonian Institution sold on Saturday for $877,500 (£562,000) at auction, organisers said.

Mike Overby, an organiser of the annual Coeur d'Alene Art Auction, said the shirt that sold in Reno is considered to be one of the most important Native American artifacts ever to come to auction. It had been expected to raise from $800,000 to $1.2m, he said.

"Anything associated with Chief Joseph is highly desirable, and that's a pretty special shirt," he told Associated Press.

Chief Joseph wore the shirt in 1877 in the earliest known photo of him, and again while posing for a portrait by Cyrenius Hall in 1878. That painting, which was used for a US postage stamp, now hangs in the Smithsonian.

The poncho-style war shirt was made of two soft skins, probably deerskin. It features beadwork with bold geometric designs and bright colors. Warriors kept such prestigious garments clean in a saddlebag on their horse or carefully stored while in camp, to be worn only on special occasions.

The shirt surfaced at an Indian relic show in the 1990s and was sold without any knowledge of its link to the photo and portrait. It changed hands again before the connection was discovered.

Its quality makes it desirable for collectors, but it is the "surprising discovery of the shirt's role in history that reveals its true importance", said Brasser, a former curator of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, Netherlands, and at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa.

The photo and portrait showing the war shirt were made shortly after Chief Joseph led 750 Nez Perce tribal members on an epic 1,700-mile journey from Oregon to Montana in an unsuccessful bid to reach Canada and avoid being confined to a reservation. They were forced to surrender in 1877 after US troops stopped them about 40 miles south of the Canadian border.

"It was a wild-card piece. We're real happy where it ended up," Overby said. The sale involved private collectors.

Despite its price, the shirt was not the top-selling piece at the auction. The painting Scout's Report, by Howard Terpning, fetched $994,500, and Cowboys Roping the Bear by Frank Tenny Johnson was bought for $965,250.

Some 400 bidders took part in what was billed as the world's largest Western art sale. About 300 works were sold for a total of $17.2m, up from $16.9m last year.


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June 25 2012

Bronze exhibition at Royal Academy shows its mettle

Landmark autumn show to feature 150 works across 6,000 years including the Chimera of Arezzo and Trundholm sun chariot

It was seeing a picture of the Chimera of Arezzo – the mythological lion and goat creature with a serpent's tail – on the spine of a book that first got the six-year-old David Ekserdjian excited about bronze. The scholar and curator's interest eventually resulted in what will be a landmark exhibition bringing together 150 works which span some 6,000 years.

In the Royal Academy's big autumn show simply called Bronze, 150 of the finest bronze works from Africa, Asia and Europe will come to London for a groundbreaking exhibition.

"In terms of intellectual thrill the prospect is entrancing," said Ekserdjian, professor of art history at Leicester university and a former editor of Apollo magazine. "There is nobody in the world who has seen all of these things in the show."

Ekserdjian, who has curated the show with the Royal Academy's Cecilia Treves, brought with him the book that inspired him as a child: CW Ceram's popular history of archaeology, Gods, Graves and Scholars, originally published in 1949, featuring the Etruscan Chimera of Arezzo spread over its front, side and back. The spectacular bronze dated at around 400BC – which will be included the show – depicts a lion with a serpent's tail and a second goat's head sprouting out of the lion's body. "I wondered what the hell was going on," he said. "I remember being gripped by it."

The exhibition will show that bronze is "truly a global art form and there are amazingly great things which have been done all over the world across time".

The Royal Academy has managed to persuade institutions to lend some of their most highly regarded treasures, many leaving their native countries for the first time. The Nordic Trundholm sun chariot, which ranks, said Ekserdjian, as Denmark's biggest national treasure, will be lent by the National Museum in Copenhagen.

Among the exhibition there will be remarkable works which have only recently been found, not least the severed head of King Seuthes III – dating from the early Hellenistic period – which was only discovered in a tomb in central Bulgaria eight years ago. "It is an outstanding work of art," said Ekserdjian.

European Renaissance bronzes will also feature including, from Florence, Giovanni Francesco Rustici's ensemble of St John the Baptist preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee from Florence. Ekserdjian said there would also be outstanding works from Asian and African countries including Cambodia and Nigeria. Almost half the 150 works in the show will be non-European.

He also promised that "not everything in the show is crunchingly, painfully serious – there are things which are fun as well". Such a category might include a bronze sculpture by Jasper Johns of two Ballantine beer cans.

Other more comparatively modern works will include Rodin's The Age of Bronze, lent by the Victoria and Albert Museum, Brancusi's Danaide from Tate Modern and Picasso's Baboon and Young from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on which you can, by looking closely, see the toy cars that the artist "borrowed" from his son Claude.

The Royal Academy's exhibitions director Kathleen Soriano said the show would explore the beauty and technique involved in the making of bronzes, and while the timing may be tempting fate, she said that in an Olympic year "it feels only right and faintly British that we should celebrate bronze".


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June 21 2012

Stonehenge enjoys a moment in the sun at summer solstice

As worshippers and revellers descend, the Wiltshire landmark is thriving – inspiring bouncy art and more wild theories than ever

In the 1930s there was an advertisement for an oil company that went: "Stonehenge Wilts, but Shell goes on forever." In 2012, with oil supplies falling and the remnants of the iconic slabs indomitable on the windswept plains of Wiltshire, the truth is surely otherwise.

"The stones themselves still stand, enduring in a society which is not," argues Christopher Chippindale, of the University of Cambridge's museum of archaeology and anthropology, who is also author of the book Stonehenge Complete. Today the World Heritage's foremost lintelled sarsen structure is not just enduring but thriving, spawning more academic research, wild theorising, bouncy art, and pagan robe sales than ever.

Just consider some of the Stonehenge activities that will take place in the next few weeks. At sunrise on Thursday, the 14,500 transcendence questing druids and varied revellers may have been outnumbered only by world weary media drones as they tried to celebrate the summer solstice at the 4.52am sunrise (ideally in line with English Heritage's stringent Conditions of Entry document, which might be downloaded by socially responsible pagans). Heavy rain overnight reduced the number of people who camped out or arrived early to witness the dawn compared with previous years, which have seen numbers of around 20,000.

And in London there was also a chance to get excited about mid-summer – for Stonehenge's inflatable simulacrum comes to town. Although the rain may have dampened spirits.

Jeremy Deller's Sacrilege, first placed in public on Glasgow Green, will be inflated to pop up in the capital as part of what sceptics would call that oxymoron the Cultural Olympiad.

Is there anything more fun than a 35-metre bouncy castle that looks like Stonehenge, you ask? Not until they make a bouncy Warwick Castle with water slide into a moat laced with gin, I reply.

What is Deller, the Turner prize-winning artist, up to? "It's a very entry-level way into thinking about ancient history for five-year-olds," he says. True, but several bouncing Glaswegians were at least 45 years older than that target demographic. "It's good to play with our history and culture. Stonehenge is part of British identity but no one knows what it was for."

Good point. Ever since King Arthur's dad, Utherpendragon, invaded Ireland, defeated an army and shipped Stonehenge from Ireland to Salisbury with the help of the wizard Merlin, the stones have sunk themselves ever deeper into British national consciousness.

In chapter 58 of Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, for instance, slimy Angel Clare and the dopey heroine are walking fugitively through darkling Wessex when "on a sudden, Clare became conscious of some vast erection close in his front [Oh grow up!], rising sheer from the grass … 'It is Stonehenge!' said Clare. 'The heathen temple, you mean?'"

Tess lies down on a sun-warmed stone. "'Did they sacrifice to God here?' asked she. 'No,' said he. 'Who to?' 'I believe to the sun. That lofty stone set away by itself is in the direction of the sun that will presently rise behind it.'"

Victorians wrote yards of this stuff: anybody who was anybody in 19th-century fiction got arrested, died, or got it on those stones.

Incidentally, if you are Irish and thinking that the paragraph above suggests Stonehenge is like the Elgin Marbles and should be repatriated immediately, think again; according to Geoffrey of Monmouth's marvellously unreliable 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain (the leading medieval account of Stonehenge's origin), Irish giants transported the stones from Africa to Ireland earlier and used them as a curative bath until they were nicked by King Arthur's dad.

Part of Stonehenge's appeal is that it's a riddle wrapped in mythology, swathed in druidical vestments and draped in a dodgy, if grand, relationship to the cosmos. Over the millennia, intellectuals have cast it as vast cosmic clock wound up by woad-daubed neolithic nudists (a theory embellished recently by archaeologists at Birmingham University's Ludwig Boltzman Institute).

Other thinkers, like the 17th -century architect Inigo Jones, maintained ancient Britons were too thick to have created such a sophisticated edifice, and concluded it must have been Roman.

Today we aren't sure who built it or why. Was it a burial ground, a magnet for crusty rave-ups, a sacred zone where our bearded forebears chillaxed old school, or a mystic portal to the celestial superhighway?

"Stonehenge sets a puzzle that has never been solved," notes Chippindale.

Could Stonehenge have functioned as a helipad for Lord Sugar's neolithic ancestors? It's not impossible. More likely it resembled a lecture theatre with uncomfortable seating and no power sockets. Archaeo-acoustic researchers at Salford and Huddersfield universities suggested as much recently after examining the 5,000-year-old-structure's acoustic properties.

Their work, at the site and at a concrete replica in Washington, indicates that Stonehenge had the sort of acoustics desirable in a lecture hall.

It wasn't only the sight of Stonehenge that would have blown ancient visitors away.

Bruno Fazenda, professor at the University of Salford, says: "As they walked inside they would have perceived the sound environment around them had changed in some way." Lucky them: all you can hear nowadays is the traffic howl from the A303.

Ever since those ancient days of magic stones shipped from Ireland, Stonehenge has satisfied a yearning among the citizens of these lands for mystic grandeur. That yearning will be kindled in July when the flaming French move in to Stonehenge.

Compagnie Carabosse will turn the site into a "fire garden" with flaming pots animating the stones, and cascades of candles lining the pathways. Think: rows of tea lights running down your garden path as you sink a sundowner, but much, much, more poncy.

Shortly afterwards, in the culmination of Stonehenge's 2012, diggers will move in to right one of the most grievous historic wrongs in modern Britain. The stones will be moved slightly to the right away from the A303 and into proper alignment with the sun.

I'm kidding. In fact, the bulldozers will rip up the inadequate car park and visitor centre that have been a national disgrace since 1968.

Simon Thurley, English Heritage's chief executive, said of the £27m makeover: "These are crucial steps which bring closer the transformation of the currently blighted Stonehenge landscape." The centre will be moved 1.5 miles away and visitors will get to the stones on a low-key transit system or, as others call it, a Noddy train. Noddy Goes To Stonehenge – what a film!

There have been films, indeed. In National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985), Mr Griswold gives an affecting speech on the monument's indomitability before climbing into his rental car and (can you see the gag yet?) reversing and toppling the thing like dominoes. Hilarious: in reality an Austin Maxi couldn't knock the skin off a rice pudding.

In the no less amusing Shanghai Knights (2003), this gag is reprised when the two main characters crash their car into Stonehenge. One says: "Who the hell would put a pile of stones in the middle of a field?" Somewhere someone's writing a PhD on Hollywood's symbolic castration of British heritage by means of such movie demolition jobs.

Stonehenge's image reached its mock-heroic apogee in the rocku/mocku-mentary This is Spinal Tap (1984). Picture the scene: the band's plotting a comeback tour involving a lavish stage show featuring a replica of the monument as a backdrop to their pomp rock classic, Stonehenge. Only one problem, the order for the prop goes wrong and instead of being 18ft high it's 18in tall, making the band a laughing stock.

Did Deller consider this pitfall in making his scaled-down bouncy version? You'd think.

He never thought, though, of emulating Steven Moffat's insanely elaborate cosmological topography in the 2010 two-part special of Doctor Who, The Pandorica Opens. All the doctor's many enemies hover above Stonehenge, while below in Underhenge lies the fabled prison of Pandorica holding the universe's most detested and feared prisoner, Jeremy Clarkson at the co-ordinates of a worrying fissure in the universe's frankly baffling structure.

Actually, it wasn't Clarkson but some being even more unimaginably evil.

Most of the filming took place at Foamhenge, a lightweight replica set up near Port Talbot. It was there that the doctor battled an army of cybermen and others in what proved to be a critic-slaying, award-winning and discombobulatingly mytho-metaphysical fuss. Very Moffat, very Stonehenge.

It was also indicative of what Stonehenge really is: an open text, endlessly interpretable and readily bendable to our times and imagination. "It is a mirror which reflects back, more or less distorted, that view of the past which the onlooker takes there," Chippindale says. Long may that continue.


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Hepworth Wakefield scores with Luke Fowler

Northern archives from the Workers' Educational Association strike a chord in the Turner Prize shortlister's guest show. Alan Sykes is impressed

Although no doubt disappointed that they lost out to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter in this year's £100,000 Art Fund Prize for Museums, staff at , the Hepworth in Wakefield will console itself with the fact that they have already attracted well over 500,000 visitors in only just over 12 months since the gallery first opened. Many more will certainly stream through its beautiful doors for its two compelling, and highly different, summer exhibitions.

If Luke Fowler wins this year's Turner Prize he will be the fourth artist in a row from Glasgow to win. His exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield will give the public a chance to evaluate his work before he joins the others on this year's Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain in October.


He has previously won the inaugural Jarman Award for artist film-makers, a Paul Hamlyn Award in 2010, and, aged only 25 in 2004, a £25,000 Donald Dewar Arts award, named in honour of the first Scottish First Minister. The new work he is showing at the Hepworth, The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcote is the result of his winning the Contemporary Art Society's "Commission to Collect" award, which the Hepworth won jointly with the Wolverhampton Art Gallery. It will be the first moving image work to be acquired by the Wakefield permanent art collection, which is held by the Hepworth.

The title is a quotation from E.P.Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, in which the historian and long-time extramural lecturer at Leeds University tried "to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the "obsolete" hand-loom weaver, the "utopian" artisan and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity". Joanna Southcott was a messianic prophet who attracted a huge following in the early nineteenth century, and who still has believers who think she will return to earth in glory (and, more specifically, in Bedford).


In the past Fowler has used archive film footage to make works about, amongst others, the LSD-admiring psychiatrist RD Laing and the avant garde composer and founder of the Scratch Orchestra Cornelius Cardew, whose members included Brian Eno and Michael Nyman.

In The Poor Stockinger Fowler uses the writings (possibly more quoted from that read) of EP Thompson and his friends Raymond Williams, who wrote Culture and Society, and Richard Hoggart, author of The Uses of Literacy. All three were active in the Workers' Education Association in particular and adult education causes in general as important post war engines for the democratisation of culture. Alongside these the artist juxtaposes research material taken from northern archives and new film footage taken in the West Riding.


Simon Wallis, director of the Hepworth, was quoted in Aesthetica magazine saying of Luke Fowler:

Moving image work is always going to be an important part of any contemporary programme. Our interest in Fowler's work arose from his engagement with experimental film-making and documentary. Wakefield has a historical connection to avant garde film through the work of Lindsay Anderson, who directed several films locally, including Wakefield Express (1952) and This Sporting Life 1963). Anderson's engagement with our immediate geographic environment and the blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction presented a synergy with Fowler, who has always expressed his indebtedness to Anderson's Free Cinema movement.



Luke Fowler's new work can be seen at the Hepworth, Wakefield, from 23 June until 14 October. It is on alongside Artists' Rooms: Richard Long


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June 12 2012

Stephen Fry steals show, and Greek hearts, in Parthenon marbles debate

A talk in London about whether the British Museum should return the sculptures was screened live to an audience in Athens

They came in their Athenian finery, filing patiently into the low-lit auditorium and waiting to hear a message of hope. Its deliverer: a man who until recently was unknown to them but who is now regarded as something of a hero; a saviour of the Greek people in the face of foreign meddling and arrogance; a man who has come to their rescue in troubled times to fight for Hellenic pride.

No, restrain yourselves; it wasn't Syriza's Alexis Tsipras. The man they had come to see was one Stephen Fry, and the issue at stake was the future of the Parthenon marbles, some of which are held by the British Museum.

Monday night's debate at Cadogan Hall in London, organised by Intelligence Squared and entitled Send Them Back: the Parthenon marbles should be returned to Athens, was also screened live at the Acropolis Museum in Greece before a rapt audience who vigorously applauded Fry's declaration that the it would be "an act of the supremest class" for Britain to return the sculptures which have resided in London for nearly 200 years.

Conversely, there was much huffing at Labour MP Tristram Hunt's argument from the other side that "the people of Greece should have intense pride that their Parthenon marbles sit in the British Museum today." Similarly, an assertion by the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto that "modern Greece is not a continuation of ancient Greece" did not go down well.

The Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George sounded the right notes in his appeal to Britain's "better instincts", arguing that a return of the marbles "pillaged from an occupied country" by Lord Elgin would simply be "the right thing to do".

But it was a Socrates-invoking, Byron-quoting Fry who stole the show, and with it Hellenic hearts. He wanted, he said, to see the Parthenon structures "in the blue light of Greece". For those around me, it was a winning strategy. When, at the end of the night, it was announced that the Athens audience voted 93% in favour of restitution, the only surprise was that 7% had not.

"It's an emotional issue not only a logical issue," explained one young man called Dimitris.

But are there not more important things for us to be worrying about right now? The debt crisis, political extremism, the return of the drachma, to name but a few?

Cambridge graduate Stefania Xydia, 25, put me right, explaining that, with the economic crisis having dealt a heavy blow to Greece's cultural and political pride, the debate about the marbles had become "more pertinent than ever".

"It's a matter of pride," she said. "And we have been so ridiculed and degraded that this would really help."

* This article was amended on 13 June to reflect the fact that the British Museum holds only some of the Parthenon marbles


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June 11 2012

Coronation Street fails to win listed status

English Heritage says redbrick terrace of long-running TV soap fails to meet historic and architectural criteria

The most famous street in the north of England has failed to win listed status as an historic building because of its constant reinvention to suit the changing demands of TV drama.

The redbrick terrace of Coronation Street, which is threatened by redevelopment as the city's media move from central Manchester to Salford Quays, lost out after a detailed analysis by English Heritage.

For all its lore and grip on the national imagination – "Corrie" is comfortably the world's longest-running, and typically the UK's most-watched TV soap – the actual bricks and mortar are comparative newcomers. Although increasingly "real", with the fibreglass chimneys being replaced by brick to meet the demands of high-definition TV, they only date back to 1982 and have had many additions since.

English Heritage said it failed the listing system's "extremely strict" criteria on age, albeit only by months, but other problems with supposed historic and architectural value were rife.

The ruling says: "Most of the houses do not have interiors and therefore exist as facades, and most of those have been altered. The set as it stands today is an active reminder of the long-running television programme, rather than a survival of an earlier era of television productions."

The full-size street was opened by the Queen, an indication of the show's status rather than the quality of the set. Its two predecessors were built smaller than life-size to fit into Granada TV's production space, obliging actors to walk more slowly than normal. The first set was indoors; the second outside and unpopular with staff because it was built at an angle which caught the wind.

The set has attracted some support from conservationists and Mancunian loyalists who believe the fictional city of Weatherfield, first introduced to viewers in 1960, is Manchester and not its neighbour and rival, Salford, the home of Media City where ITV Granada is building a new set. A number of housing and tourism groups are thought to have approached the company, which is expected to move out next year.

ITV Granada said in a statement: "We continue to consider the future of the Coronation Street set ahead of our planned move to Media City".

Nick Bridgland, of English Heritage, said: "There is no question that Coronation Street is a television institution and holds a huge place in many people's hearts. While listing is not appropriate for the set, a better solution could be for a local group or organisation with an interest to care for it and allow fans from all over the world to visit and enjoy it."


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May 19 2012

The Parthenon marbles are not ours. They belong in Athens

Elgin's behaviour would be absolutely unacceptable today

Despite the disintegration of their politics and economy, the Greeks can still muster a crew of vestal virgins to light and nurture the Olympic flame. The ceremony had a bogus feel but, dressed in that clinging material the Athenian sculptors rendered so miraculously in marble, the virgins of Vesta the goddess of fire really did look as though they had served as caryatids or just stepped from an ancient frieze.

The idea of the flame and its journey is to imbue the branded and, I have to say, slightly tiresome modern Olympiad with the spirit of the games that were first held in 776BC in honour of Zeus. But the sight of these women also reminds us that, while ancient Greece has given so much to the modern world and sets some kind of bar for all civilisation, it is dishonoured as well as honoured in the 2012 Olympic city.

Those photographs from Greece last week sent me straight round to the chief site of that abuse, the Duveen Gallery at the British Museum, where the Parthenon marbles are displayed and there are as many diaphanously clothed virgins as you would wish to clap eyes on.

Don't get me wrong – this is not to attack the British Museum, which certainly represents a high point in civilisation and has a terrific director in Neil MacGregor. But it is a plea that we be honest with ourselves about the presence of so many of the Parthenon sculptures in Britain. There are bits and pieces in other European museums, but the great proportion of this incomparable work has been here since it was chiselled and sawn from the Parthenon by the Scots peer Lord Elgin just over two centuries ago. "The sea-ruling Britannia snatched the last spoils of Greece, that was in the throes of death," as Byron put it.

The only allusion to the controversy of the continued presence in this country that I could find in the museum was a notice near the entrance to the Duveen Gallery. "Elgin's removal of the sculptures from the ruins of the building has always been a matter for discussion," it says with a dry little cough before briskly moving on. "But one thing is certain – his actions spared them further damage by vandalism, weathering and pollution."

I'll come to the weathering and pollution later, but it's hard to fathom a logic that suggests that the advantages of this order of pillage include saving the sculptures from vandalism. That would justify cutting a section of Botticelli's Birth of Venus from its frame to preserve it from any future vandals.

I won't dilate too much about the experience of seeing the marbles close up, which is something the ancient Greeks never did, because they were placed high on the Parthenon, but what is moving is the human detail of the sculptures – the snapshots of people turning round to see what's going on, struggling with a bullock that is about to get loose, and men expiring at the hooves of centaurs. There is a deep love of the physical world in every fleeting action and gesture, particularly in the horses, which are shown at rest, exhausted or suddenly breaking into an exhilarating canter with their manes flying, muscles engaged, veins bulging. You are tempted to say the artists who observed so keenly and reproduced what they saw in marble with such accuracy were just as sophisticated as us. Not true – they were far superior.

I have been going to see the marbles since studying art in the 1970s; indeed I went when I met my old tutor of 40 years ago, Dr Ulrich Finke, for lunch near the British Museum recently. And in that time I have gradually come to feel uneasy about them. It's like being shown a collection of work by Picasso and Cézanne in someone's house and being told the paintings are stolen. It colours the experience, because the appreciation of great art cannot be illicit, and knowledge of a theft affects the way you see.

Perhaps we shouldn't be too precious about this – many works of art are acquired dubiously. But the Parthenon marbles are different because they were the height of man's achievement in the fifth century BC, and for about 2,000 years after that. They represent the core of Greek civilisation, and they are the beating heart of modern Greek identity. And, as important, the sculptures really represent half the building that was constructed between 447BC and 432BC to mark the defeat of the Persians by Athens.

If you ask the people who argue passionately for retention when they last went to see the marbles, it is striking how few have been in the past five years. It seems to be simply a matter of patriotic possession to them, rather than any great love of art. And talking of possession, they always tend to forget that the sculptures were prised from the Parthenon when the Turks ruled the Greeks, and they could not defend the emblems of their glorious past. If possession ever was nine tenths of the law, it is also true to say that it is often nine tenths of guilt. Works of arts looted by the Nazis were not allowed to stay where Goering hoarded them but were returned to their rightful owners. I don't put the marbles in the same category, but they are on that spectrum of misappropriation.

The late Christopher Hitchens campaigned long and hard for the return of the marbles. In a piece for Vanity Fair three years ago, he pointed out that all the arguments concerning pollution and weathering were now redundant, because the Greeks have built a beautiful museum ready to house their heritage. A few fragments from the frieze have begun to trickle back to Athens but the Greeks await the bulk of Phidias's masterly work and their heritage.

The argument that restoration would set a precedent is also false, because there are very few works in the world that fall into the category of the Parthenon marbles, which inspire deep feelings of national loss and yearning.

To weigh the issue, you need only ask yourself if Elgin's behaviour would be acceptable today. Of course it wouldn't, and nor would we expect to keep the result of such looting. So why do we hold on to these ill-gotten sculptures now?

While the Greeks strip their banks of money and head towards an economic precipice, it is hardly the moment to ship the marbles out of Tilbury.

However, I am suggesting that in the light of everything western civilisation owes Greece – in terms of democratic ideas, the Olympics, science, art and architecture – we should begin to address a simple truth: the Parthenon marbles are not ours to keep.


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May 17 2012

Tate Britain promises new chronological display of art treasures

Success in raising £45m for improvements allows 2013 project to rehang collection and display works from 1550 to present day

Tate Britain has promised visitors a chronological circuit of the full 500-year range of its art treasures from next year as it announced success in raising the £45m needed for its major improvements.

The last link in the chain was a £4.9m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, allowing completion in 2013 of a project to conserve and upgrade galleries and open up new spaces.

Central to that is a rehang of the collection, which the gallery's director Penelope Curtis said would be displayed chronologically – from 1550 to the present day – rather themed or by artist group.

That will please vocal critics – among them the Guardian's Jonathan Jones and the respected Burlington Magazine – who have been aghast at the paucity of pre-1900 works being displayed over recent years.

That is down to the Millbank Project, explained Curtis. "What we didn't do well enough was communicate that we were in the middle of a building project. We were perhaps too successful in hiding it."

Nicholas Serota, overall director of Tate, admitted: "Obviously when you have something like a fifth of the galleries out of service you have to sympathise with the visitors.

"They are expecting to see a full panorama of art from 1550 to the present day and we haven't been able to show many of the great works in the collection."

Tate Britain hopes there will be fewer critics when the rehang is opened to the public next May.

The chronological circuit of around 400 works will begin with early treasures such as Hans Eworth's 1565 Portrait of an Unknown Lady, showing works through the centuries to the present day including, said Curtis, both the unexpected and those that "people want and expect to see".

Artists on display will include Constable, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Millais, Stubbs, Bacon, Hockney, Lowry and Spencer. There will also be dedicated galleries for William Blake and Henry Moore.

The gallery has also opened the doors to a rehang of its Turner bequest in the Clore gallery – "the first phase of putting the Tate back to what it should be", said Curtis. It includes many popular favourites as well as lesser-known aspects of his work, including an unfinished study of female nudes never been displayed by Tate Britain and conventionally difficult to recognise as a Turner.

The galleries will also feature works which benefit from recent research, including a room in which Turner seascapes hang alongside works by his contemporary and rival, Constable.

A total of £1.9m from the HLF grant will pay for a major digitisation project integrating the archives into an online collection with the other £3m going in to the £45m pot, a target Tate set for itself in 2009.

Getting the money is something of a relief, particularly as the HLF turned down Tate's application for a £7.5m grant 18 months ago, prompting the gallery to go back to them for a smaller sum.

"Obviously not raising money in the initial tranche has put additional pressure on our fundraising from individuals, foundations and trusts," said Serota. "It is a tribute to the support and faith that individuals, foundations and trusts have in Tate Britain and in its programme that we have managed to achieve that level of support."

Sue Bower, head of the HLF London, said her organisation was "passionate about supporting projects that make our heritage accessible to everyone and through opening up the galleries, creating new learning spaces and digitising archives – this impressive project will do just that".


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May 09 2012

Stormy Waters

A Liverpudlian response to Rowan Moore's criticisms of the Liverpool Waters plan

Liverpool is still one of the most deprived cities in the UK, but it does have an economy that is slowly improving. Only last week, it jumped to fifth place in the table of cities most-visited from overseas. The 1,000 new jobs at the Jaguar Land Rover plant in Halewood are another welcome boost. Yet the fact that some 35,000 people applied for those vacancies shows how it still has a long way to go.

This is why ambitious projects like Liverpool Waters, the controversial plan for new offices, homes and other facilities around decaying northern dockland, are important. The biggest planning application ever submitted in Britain, seems on a fanastastically inhuman scale which naturally makes people uneasy, including The Observer's London-based Rowan Moore; but sometimes, especially when you're at the bottom, you have to think big.

When Liverpool's early leaders built the world's first enclosed wet dock, which opened in 1715, they mortgaged their entire modestly-sized town to build it. It was a big risk that paid off; so was Liverpool's pioneering of the world's first intercity railway, to Manchester, in the face of many who said that it would never work. Such risk-taking helped to build Liverpool. But it is something we seem to have lost over the last forty years.

There has also been a knee-jerk reaction against Liverpool Waters as a scheme of that instinctively mistrusted group, property developers, in this case Peel Holdings. This can be justified, as more often than not such organisations focus on profit above all else. Yet if property development for profit had never happened here, the historic docks that we now admire would have never been built.

Grade 1-listed Albert Dock was not built to look nice. It was built to make money as a fireproof shed, that in 1846 was starkly modern and was criticised at the time by local historian J.A Picton for its brutal mediocrity.

Neither would have the famous 'Three Graces' on the city's Pier Head. Built on redundant dockland, the Graces were the Canary Wharf or Liverpool Waters of their day; early examples of corporate headquarters built in the latest trendy styles to aggrandise the businesses that constructed them. They were not universally popular with the critics at the time either. The Royal Liver Building was dismissed by Charles Reilly, professor of architecture at Liverpool University, thus:

A mass of grey granite to the cornice, it rose to the sky in two quite unnecessary towers, which can symbolise nothing but the power of advertisement.

Today's aggressive heritage lobby and aesthete critics are fond of proclaiming Liverpool's past innovations and achievements, with the hindsight which Reilly could not have. But they are as blinkered as he could be to the city's need to continue to innovate and develop. The threatened loss of the UNESCO World Heritage status which covers part of the site, if the development goes ahead, would be a blow. But the pluses and minuses of having the status are hard to quantify. Dresden in Germany also lost its World Heritage Site status when it built an important modern bridge. It remains a prosperous tourist magnet.

Meanwhile such critics seem content to oppose Liverpool Waters without offering any realistic alternative plan for this huge area, not even a notional one. That would condemn the historic structures in the northern docks to continue to rot for want of money or a reason for being. Nearly all these old buildings would be restored as part of Liverpool Waters, alongside new developments.

I believe that the Waters should be compared to Liverpool 1, the new shopping and leisure area developed by the Grosvenor Estate and opened four years ago. It too was heavily criticised during construction, but vox pop on its streets today and you would find few who would want to go back to the 1970s Moat House hotel, the wasteland car parks, concrete Paradise Street Bus station and the Argos Superstore that used to stand there.

Liverpool 1 created thousands of jobs and helped the city to leap from 14th to 5th in the UK's retail rankings, while not, as many predicted, destroying the traditional shopping areas of Church Street and Bold Street. It has also attracted dozens of new shops to Liverpool at a time when town centres nationally are collapsing, the development creating the demand. I didn't like Liverpool 1 while it was in gestation, but now I find it hard to argue now against its success in transforming Liverpool's town centre for the better.

I'm not Peel's PR. They have some questionable business arrangements, tend to rely heavily on outside investment and often build dull architecture; but again I turn to the critics and ask: what else do you suggest? No one else has any workable plans for the northern dock. So do we go for it? or do we duck the risk, let Liverpool's economy struggle along and allow an historic part of our city to rot indefinitely while wistfully hoping for something else?

Even as a supporter of the Waters, I admit that I will believe it all when I see it. But I never would have believed the developments that have already happened in contemporary Liverpool were possible a few years ago. The city and the Government should take a leaf out of our history and go for it. Critics should meanwhile put pen to paper or easel, to show us they think could go in its place.

Kenn Taylor is a writer and journalist based in Liverpool. You can follow him here and here.


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April 01 2012

Stephen Fry joins Parthenon marbles debate

London 2012 Olympics are an opportunity to 'redress a great wrong' and give back Parthenon sculptures, says British actor

Greek campaigners seeking the return of the Parthenon marbles have renewed their efforts with an open letter imploring David Cameron to back the restitution of the classical carvings "to their historic home in Athens".

Stephen Fry is lending his support for the return of what are also known as the Elgin marbles.

Weighing in to one of the world's most controversial cultural disputes, the actor proposed that Britain "redress a great wrong" by using the occasion of the 2012 London Olympics to give up the fifth-century masterpieces. Nearly 200 years after the sculptures were acquired by the British Museum their return would not only be "classy", he argued, but a much-needed morale booster for a country mired in crisis.

"Stephen Fry knows more about this issue than most Greeks," said Alexis Mantheakis, who chairs the International Parthenon Sculptures Action Committee. "He makes the superb point that the London Olympics would be a perfect opportunity for Britain to magnanimously put an end to what Greeks and the majority of people in the EU, including the UK, see as a historical wrongdoing."

In the letter, the campaigning group cites a lengthy essay, Greece is the Word, that Fry recently penned on the issue.

"The Hellenic republic today is in heart-rending turmoil, a humiliating sovereign debt crisis has brought Greece to the brink of absolute ruin. This proud, beautiful nation for which Byron laid down his life is in a condition much like the one for which he mourned when they [the Greeks] were under the Ottoman yoke in the early 19th century," the actor wrote.

In its darkest hour, he said, Greece was now "owed" by Britain.

"What greater gesture could be made to Greece in its appalling finance distress? An act of friendship, atonement and an expression of faith in the future of the cradle of democracy would be so, well just so damned classy."

Global advocates of the antiquities' repatriation have pledged to step up pressure on the British government ahead of the July 27 opening of the Olympic Games.

In Sydney at the weekend, activists launched a new push to reinvigorate the campaign. Committees from around the world, including Australia and the US, announced they will meet in London in June to decide how best to promote the "noble cause."

Designed by Pericles's master sculptor, Phidias, the marbles were part of a monumental frieze that adorned the Parthenon. In 1801, they were removed from the Acropolis by Lord Elgin, then British ambassador to the Ottoman empire.

More than 60% of the frieze is now on display in Bloomsbury, while an ultra-modern museum, custom-built to exhibit the artworks at the foot of the Acropolis, has had to make do with giant plaster-cast copies.

With the Greek government noticeably abstaining from the dispute in recent years – with officials invariably citing Athens's dire financial straits – citizens exploiting social media have stepped into the breach. Mantheakis's own group has attracted 215,000 members worldwide since its foundation in 2009.

"Prime minister, history and future generations will honour you, as will Greece, if you take that one small but monumental step of amending the 1933 Museums Act to allow for the return of the Parthenon sculptures," said his open letter.

"If Britain could give back India, then surely the emptying of one room of a London museum is a small price to pay to right a historical wrong."


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March 28 2012

Crown jewels exhibition: - audio slideshow

To celebrate the Queen's diamond jubilee, the Tower of London is opening a new £2.5m exhibition of the crown jewels. Hadley Freeman talks us through the highlights



March 07 2012

Hampton Court exhibition reveals damned beauties of Stuart era

Catching the eye of King Charles II could bring a woman riches or a phial of poison from a jealous husband

For the beautiful young women at the court of "the merry monarch" Charles II, trying to live on their wits and their looks was a dangerous gamble. At least two of the subjects of a new exhibition at Hampton Court Palace died so young, and so unexpectedly, that contemporary gossip insisted they were poisoned by jealous husbands.

The exhibition, the first at Hampton Court on the Stuart period after a decade spent on the Tudors and Henry VIII, is in the Queen's state apartments, which were created in the late 17th century by Sir Christopher Wren for Mary II.

"Beauty was a very thin line," the show's curator, Brett Dolman, said. "On one side, beauty is taken as a symbol of virtue and perfection, beauty could allow you to rise far beyond your original station in life. On the other, beauty is viewed with suspicion as a snare and one wrong step and your reputation is destroyed forever."

The portrait of Elizabeth Butler, by the 17th-century artist Peter Lely, usually hangs at Chevening in Kent, the mansion once owned by her husband, Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, and now shared by the foreign secretary, William Hague, and the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg. Butler attracted the roving eye of the king's brother, James, was sent away from court by Stanhope – despite his own rackety reputation – and was dead within the year.

Margaret Brooke, one of two beautiful sisters, was also targeted by James but married a much older poet, John Denham: she too was sent from court and was dead within a year, aged 20.

On the other hand Frances Stuart, painted by Lely as Diana the hunter, and dubbed "the prettiest girl in the world" by the diarist Samuel Pepys, just about kept clear of the king's grasping hands, married well and became the model for Britannia on the coinage.

The most famously avaricious for both money and power, and the mistress who retained power over the king for longest, was Barbara Villiers: the exhibition includes the outrageous portrait of her as the Virgin Mary, dandling her son by the king, both perfectly recognisable to her contemporaries.

Nell Gwynn will sprawl naked at the heart of the exhibition, her past as an actor and Covent Garden orange seller forgotten, her two sons by the king on their way to becoming nobility – even if legend says she dangled one out of a window and threatened to let go to win him a title. The portrait the king is said to have displayed at the head of his bed, concealed behind a blameless landscape, is coming on loan from a private collector – it was auctioned at Christie's in 2007 for £1.7m.

She was loved as much for her wit as her beauty: when a crowd stopped her carriage, believing it held Louise de Keroualle, suspected of being a Catholic French spy, Gwynn retorted: "Pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore." She is also said to have handicapped a rival for the king, Moll Davis, by lacing her food with a purgative.

Many of the portraits come from two famous series in the royal collection, The Windsor Beauties and the Hampton Court Beauties – but Dolman says visitors have in the past walked past them like wallpaper.

"Part of the problem is their baroque style which, apart from the period when it was the height of fashion, has tended to be viewed with suspicion: not English enough, too racy, too French."

Many of the beauties have spent years in store, including the wildest – by repute – of them all, Hortense Mancini, niece of the French Cardinal Jules Mazarin. The painting shows her sister reading her palm and prophesying she will fall in love with a king: by the time she reached the court in 1676, on the run from an older husband so mad he forbade his female servants to milk cows lest it give them sexual kicks, gossip said she had slept with many men, at least one priest, several nuns and the king's illegitimate daughter – with whom she fought a public fencing match with both women in nightgowns.

"I don't know how many of the stories can possibly be true," Dolman said. "I can't see how she would have had the time."

The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned, Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, Surrey from 5 April to 30 September www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace/


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March 04 2012

The 1908 London Olympic Games – in pictures

London was volunteered as a host when the planned Rome event was thrown into turmoil due to the eruption of Vesuvius



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