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June 26 2012

Stalking Schwitters in the Lake District

Newcastle honours the high priest of Dada, whose previous exhibitions include the notorious show 'curated' by the Nazi Goebbels on 'degenerate art'. Alan Sykes reports

Wakefield-born Helen Petts is a film-maker, a photographer and a painter who also works collaboratively with improvisational musicians.

In her latest work, commissioned for the Great North Museum's Hatton Gallery, she has created a film installation with sonic back-drop which follows the high priest of Dada, Kurt Schwitters, as he fled Nazi Germany for Norway and then on again to the Lake District. Schwitters has many passionate admirers, and the Merzbarn, his only surviving 'Merz' construction, made in a barn in the Langdale Valley in the months before his death in the Lake District in 1948, is now an integral part of the Hatton Gallery, and a place of pilgrimage for Schwitters' fans.

As an, at the time dangerous, addition to his cv, Schwitters was included in the Entartete Kunst – degenerate art – exhibition curated, if that's the right word, by Josef Goebbels in Munich in 1937. Schwitters had fled Germany a few months before the opening of the exhibition – which also included works by Mondrian, Max Ernst, Kandinsky, Kokoshka, Chagall, Otto Dix and Klee - as his son Ernst had evaded military service, and it became convenient for both of them to leave.
In Norway he mostly stayed on the small island of Hjertoya where the Schwitters Hytta still survives. Helen Petts followed him there, camping on the electricity-free island and filming the surroundings, as well as swimming in the icy fjord. It seems probable that, in creating the Merzbarn, Schwitters was, in some way, attempting to re-create the space in Norway where he was happy – as Helen Petts puts it: "

it was almost spooky how similar the landscape around the hytta is to Elterwater, and how like the Merzbarn the hytta itself is

Schwitters was forced to flee the Nazis again in 1940 when they invaded Norway. He embarked on the last Allied ship to leave, arriving in Scotland with his son, daughter-in-law, one piece of sculpture and two white mice. Eventually he landed up in the Lake District, where he spent the last three years of his life, occasionally selling portraits and landscapes of local scenes to earn a living. Although depressed that Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery, refused to see him, his morale was lifted in 1947 when a cheque for $1,000 arrived from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, enabling him to start work on the Merzbarn. The wall of the barn which he had partially completed, by then falling into disrepair, was gifted by its owner to Newcastle University in the 1960s, and transported over there - with considerable difficulty - in the 1960s..
Helen has followed Schwitters almost obsessively for her film, camping on the island in Norway where Schwitters lived. She has also followed all of Schwitters' walking routes in the Lake District.

As the Dutch art historian Rudi Fuchs has pointed out

possibly the great achievement of Schwitters was that he discovered disorder as an expressive force in art.

The title of the exhibition comes from the description Schwitters gave of the random process he used with the materials for his collages. Helen Petts has used the apparently haphazard images she has made for her film to create an abstract narrative of the last 10 years of Schwitters' life – following him to his gravestone in Ambleside churchyard - forcing the viewer to concentrate on shape and form, texture and movement, tone and light, both in the film and the accompanying sound-track. Schwitters was a fan of avant garde music and composed abstract poetry using wordless vocal sounds to construct works like his Ur Sonata. Helen Petts has used experimental music and improvised sounds as the sound-track for her film, working with leading experimental musicians Phil Minton, Roger Turner, Adam Bodman and Sylvia Hallett.


Helen has said:

When I was invited to Hannover Jazz Week to screen some of my music films, I went to the Schwitters archive there and realised what an extraordinary artist he was and what an influence he has been on the musicians I work with who all work in free improvisation. And Schwitters was obviously a walker – he loved the mountains.



In the Hatton, the work will be shown on a large screen in the gallery next door to the Merzbarn, with six speakers immersing the viewer with the accompanying sounds.

Helen Pett's Throw Them Up and Let Them Sing: Following Kurt Schwitters' escape from Nazi Germany to Norway and the Lake District is on at the Great North Museum - Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, from June 28 until 18 August (with a Merz musical evening at the Sage Music Centre in Gateshead on June 30th). It will also be displayed at the White Room at the Royal Festival Hall, London, from 31 August to 8 September and at Hall Art Gallery, Kendal from 15 September to 19 November.

It has been chosen by the Huffington Post as one of the 21 Cultural Olympiad events not to miss this summer.

Here's a clip from YouTube of Petts filming Roger Minton, playing percussion with paintbrushes and palette knives, while Phil Minton sings Dada.


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June 07 2012

Wainwright notebook and maps among artwork at Carlisle auction

Meticulous preparation for the famous guidebooks is shown in the Lake District writer's notes and annotations to maps

The Lake District has probably inspired more art per square inch than anywhere else in the UK, even if William Wordsworth rather let the side down with the opening lines of his poem on Westminster bridge.

Some of the most interesting is the work of amateurs or specialists in other fields, among whom the names of Beatrix Potter and Alfred Wainwright are currently the most well-known.

An interesting example of work by the latter is coming up for auction later this month; one of the notebooks used in the preparation of his seven-volume guide to walks on the Lakeland fells, along with a score of Ordnance Survey maps with annotations in his neat, town clerk's hand.

Wainwright could be crusty about the OS when they erred; an almost unavoidable hazard in their vast task, but only because he respected the mapmakers' dedication to accuracy which was matched by his own. Even the notebooks are fine examples of very careful work, although intended only for his use.

The lot also contains a further bundle of maps used by Cyril Moore, one of four people who helped the great navigator with his Pennine Way companion. Maps and blue-bound ledger will be auctioned in the somewhat un-Wainwrightlike surroundings of Carlisle's Rosehill industrial estate on Monday, 25 June, by the local firm of HH auction rooms. One of its auctioneers and valuers, Georgina Nixon, says:

Wainwright's notebook will be of great interest to both enthusiasts and scholars alike. I provides real insight into the process of working and indeed to the unique style of the author.  Although a number of more up-to-date guidebooks are on the market, Wainwright's works remain ever popular for their depth and detail, something still cherished by followers to this day. The unique value of the collection comes in its having been kept together.


The estimated price is £2000-£3000 but it's anyone's guess, with Wainwright having many devotees. Other Lakes-related items in the sale include work by the contemporary artist Marion Bradley, notably a series of pencil sketches, and paintings by the late Victorian and early 20th century painter, Thomas Bushby.

One of these shows a little boy wearing a red beret – a cap much favoured by Bushby who would have enjoyed the arrival of Kangol the beret makers in West Cumbria, had he lived to see it. The child is out with his granny in the Cumbrian rain and the auctioneers are keen to establish where the scene was set. Nixon says:

It has been suggested that the place in this painting is Brisco, near Carlisle, but we would like to hear from anyone who can fully identify the location.


The estimate on that one is £2000-£3000 as well.


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May 08 2012

Sea Odyssey's vast puppets bring more to Liverpool than the Grand National

Merseyside's recent spectacular show illustrates how street theatre and public art can attract vast crowds. The north west's industrial heritage is doing the same. Alan Sykes reports

Two new reports highlight the value of cultural tourism to the economy of the north west of England. Last month's 'Sea Odyssey' street theatre jamboree in Liverpool is reckoned to have brought in £12m in extra spending by the vast crowds which thronged the city streets. Meanwhile, an estimated £11m was spent in the last year by people visiting industrial heritage attractions throughout the region.

For 'Sea Odyssey', the city's Business Improvement District managers estimate that their core area of the city centre alone saw a footfall just shy of 1,000,000 people over that weekend – 53% more than for the Grand National a week earlier. As well as those watching the event itself, visitors poured into shops, restaurants and other attractions which saw significant rises in custom – the Walker Art Gallery was 145% up on the previous year, the Maritime Museum was up 130% and Merseytravel, who laid on an extra ferry for people wanting to watch the giants sail down the Mersey, handled an extra 143% of passengers.

Councillor Wendy Simon, Cabinet Member for Culture and Tourism at Liverpool City Council, says:

"We always knew this would be a huge weekend for the city, but 'Sea Odyssey' exceeded our expectations in terms of the crowd numbers and their reaction to the show. An independent report on the impact of Sea Odyssey is now being put together with final figures available within the next couple of months."


The city council certainly believes it got value for money for the £1.5m it cost to commission the French street theatre outfit Royale de Luxe to put on the event.


Meanwhile, a similar contribution to the region's economy, albeit in a more widespread and low key way, is claimed for the industrial heritage attractions spread throughout the area.

For the last year, Visit Manchester, working with the other tourist boards in the North West, has been managing a project called Modern History, an ERDF-funded project aimed at promoting around 100 of the North West's industrial heritage attractions, including Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry, Cumbria's Honister Slate Mine and the Anderton Boat Lift in Cheshire. The research shows that mines, mills and transport systems that have been converted into visitor attractions are increasing the tourism revenue of the region. Honister, for example, which continues to produce the Westmorland green slate that was probably mined there in Roman times, now offers a via ferrata climbing path – giddily strung from a cliff-face and shortlisted for this year's Enjoy England awards - to go with the mine tours and slate sales.


The report shows that an extra 24,000 day visits and over 5000 overnight stays throughout the North West were generated by the campaign. Lisa Houghton, marketing manager for Modern History, is quoted in the Manchester Evening News saying:

The north west was instrumental in moving the world into the industrial age and the rich stories that surround this period are still relevant today – as the high visitor levels reflect. The research proves what a hard-working campaign Modern History has been and we are confident that even though the project has come to an end, it leaves a strong legacy that will continue to drive footfall to our wonderful attractions and museums for years to come.


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November 01 2011

Windermere Steamboat Museum designs unveiled

Entries for the Lakeland Arts Trust's RIBA-managed competition to find the team that will design the new Windermere Steamboat Museum facilities



May 13 2011

A passion for painting in the Lake District

In the second half of the 18th century, a flood of tourists swept into the Lake District. Jenny Uglow describes the art that fed this new appetite for the sublime

Spring is here, Wordsworth's daffodils are already over and thousands of us are on our way to the Lake District, disturbing the sheep and hallooing from the crags. The poet might shudder. In 1840, fighting the threat of the extension of the Lancaster-Carlisle railway, Wordsworth winced at the vision of "cheap trains pouring out their hundreds at a time along the margin of Windermere", and the mushrooming of vulgar inns. The battle was already lost, although many continued to echo Wordsworth's fears. Thirty years later, when it was proposed to continue the line to Keswick, Ruskin groaned: "I don't want them to see Helvellyn while they are drunk."

By then a century of tourists had visited the Lakes, in an ever-increasing stream. In the mid-18th century, the moors and caverns of the Peak District, long a popular itinerary, began to seem tame – not remote or wild enough. Hence Elizabeth Bennet's confession in Pride and Prejudice that she is "excessively disappointed" when the promised excursion to the Lake District is replaced by a Derbyshire tour. Jane Austen was not alone in laughing at the passion for the Lakes, inspired a generation or so earlier by the vogue for the picturesque and the sublime. The former, according to William Gilpin in his "Essay on Prints" in 1768, could be defined as "that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture", while the latter conjured up an intensity of pleasure aroused by scenes that evoked fear, horror, strangeness and awe – as long as you were perfectly safe yourself. The Lake District could provide both: picturesque foregrounds of gentle lake shores, complete with innocent rustics, set against looming mountains, perilous rocks and crashing waterfalls and – if you were lucky – a devastating storm to whip sublimity to its peak.

An early pointer to the coming craze was John Brown's eloquently affectionate letter about Derwentwater in the London Chronicle in 1766. This was followed in 1770 by Arthur Young's A Six Months' Tour Through the North of England, which combined lashings of facts with a nod to the "picturesque", "sublime" and "horribly romantic" landscape. Then, in a rush, came Gilpin's Observations, Hutchinson's Excursion to the Lakes and Thomas Gray's journal of his tour of 1769, published in 1775, four years after his death. This was a key moment. Gray laid down the vital tour and stopping points: first Ullswater and Derwentwater, then past Helvellyn to Grasmere and Ambleside. He also set the sublime tone, as in his famous account of the Jaws of Borrowdale, like a pass in the Alps "strewed with piles of fragments strangely thrown across each other, and of a dreadful bulk". It sounded deliciously dangerous. Three years later Thomas West produced a full guidebook, with directions to every rocky torrent and cloud-crowned peak, and the crowds began to come. By the 1780s the Ullswater pleasure boats were mounted with canon, their blasts echoing from rock to rock like crashing thunder. Soon Derwentwater and Windermere offered the same thrills (although travellers were warned to check that all the gunpowder was rammed in, to be sure they got the proper deal).

The emphasis was on the eye as well as the ear. Guidebooks gave precise instructions on exactly what you were supposed to see, and exactly where from, with specific "stations" designated at every viewpoint. The pictorial models were the landscapes of Salvator Rosa, nicknamed "Savage Rosa" by the poet James Thomson; the "majestic" scenes of Poussin and the idylls of Claude. To appreciate the "picture" properly, many visitors followed Gray's example in carrying a Claude glass, a small, convex mirror used by landscape artists, with different coloured foils to provide varying moods. Absurdly, you had to stand with your back to the view and look at the scene in the mirror, slightly distorted but satisfyingly framed.

Coleridge was tart about tourists who stuck their heads in guidebooks or gazed at aquatints rather than at the landscape itself. "Still, however, I hope and trust," he wrote, "that a majority will remain of those, who have kept their eyes open, and their hearts awake."

The literary descriptions and the poetry are more familiar than the "views" the Lake visitors so admired. The current exhibition at the Wordsworth Trust Museum in Grasmere, Savage Grandeur and Noblest Thoughts: Discovering the Lake District, 1750-1820 rectifies this neglect, vividly demonstrating how artists, as well as writers, chose to see, or failed to see, the view before them. The show's title comes from a poem of 1755 by Dr John Dalton, noted in the catalogue by Cecilia Powell and Stephen Hebron as "the earliest literary description of the Lakes". One highlight is "dread Lodore", the waterfall at the southern end of Derwentwater, cascading through its fierce "rough rocks":

Horrors like these at first alarm,

But soon with savage grandeur charm,

And raise to noblest thoughts the mind.

Thomas Hearne's pen and ink and watercolour sketch, Sir George Beaumont and Joseph Farington painting a Waterfall, shows two artists setting about this very subject. In 1777 Hearne and Farington took the patron and collector Beaumont on a sketching trip, staying at Lodore, where Hearne sketched his two colleagues at their easels. Later he modified this in a larger picture, a memento for Beaumont. The scene is striking because the accepted practice was to use a sketchbook in the open, then work this up in the comfort of the studio – but here they are, painting in oils on canvas tacked on stretchers, shaded by large, fringed umbrellas wedged between the rocks. Behind them, his hands casually in his pockets, stands their servant (the umbrella and box carrier), while a small dog pants at his feet. These young painters were bringing to the Lakes a style of "painting from nature" established in Rome, where Farington's teacher Richard Wilson had been in the 1750s. Beaumont enjoyed himself so much that he returned with his wife on their honeymoon the following year, and came back for many summers in later years. So did Farington, whose influential Views of the Lakes eventually appeared in 1789.

This trio may have been unusual in painting outdoors, but they were far from the first to try to catch the drama of the landscape, an attempt that started in the 1750s with William Beller's print of the great circle of mountains surrounding Derwentwater. The quest for the sublime often led the early artists to exaggerate, making the fells almost unrecognisable. The mountains that Thomas Smith of Derby painted in the 1760s, for example, soar straight up from the lakes into zig-zag summits, almost like a Chinese painting. But although "untruthful", the effect can be stunning, as in his atmospheric etching of Ennerdale, complete with billowing storm clouds and blasted tree. By contrast, other artists leant more to the picturesque. Several scenes have a strange delicacy, as if the artist were timid of his awesome subject, such as the hazy mountainscapes of Anthony Devis (half-brother of the portrait painter), which rise softly behind a sketchy foreground, where horsemen ride and woodcutters stack logs.

One of the delights of the exhibition is noting how different artists tackle such similar subjects, finding the distinctive signature in the series of ravishing watercolours, or seeing how less familiar artists fare against great names. Gainsborough, for example, is represented by a haunting drawing of the Langdale Pikes done from memory after his visit of 1783, which he later completely transformed into a generalised scene, Mountain Landscape with Shepherd. Gainsborough's Lake District is a vision seen on the inner eye: his mountains become metaphors, the angle of the Langdales' slope reversed to align with wind-blown trees and scudding clouds. To his more showy friend de Loutherbourg, who came north in the same year, the Lakes were not a dream but a drama. In his excitement he produced a swathe of paintings, full of energy and life, including the sunset view of Skiddaw (so grand that it was known as "the Etna of the North" despite having no volcanic traces), showing a laden stagecoach with passengers teetering on the roof, struggling up the mountain road in a swirl of dust.

There is drama of a different, impersonal, kind in Joseph Wright of Derby's painting of Ullswater, where rolling mountains loom against pale sky behind a lake whose waters gleam with golden light. And drama, too, in the cloud-filled bowl of Thomas Girtin's Borrowdale, commissioned to develop one of Sir George Beaumont's own sketches, so the catalogue tells us, and "turn an on-the-spot record into a work of art". Girtin had never even visited the area, yet could still produce a classic Lake District scene. He knew what was expected.

By 1800 an amphitheatre-like view, with lake or valley surrounded by peaks, had become a commonplace. In this exhibition you feel a shock of pleasure when an artist employs a style quite at odds with the Claude-glass view: the almost abstract landscapes of Francis Towne, or William Havell's The Beck at Ambleside After Much Rain, its jumping waters filling the frame. But even conventional compositions can offer startling insights, such as the views of Haweswater in the album that Thomas Chubbard compiled for the wealthy Daniel Daulby when he came to live at Rydal Mount in 1796, showing the small figure-of-eight lake beneath the crags of High Street, before the later reservoir drowned the village and its farms. Sometimes, too, artists set out deliberately to recover the past, rather than record the present: Hearne's tour of 1777 was prompted by the need for material for his Antiquities of Great Britain, illustrated here by a watercolour sketch of Furness Abbey. The fashionable interest in antiquities is also marked by an elegantly sparing sketch of Long Meg, near Shap Fell, the largest prehistoric circle in the north. The artist Lady Mary Lowther lived nearby with her husband Sir James Lowther, the most powerful local magnate – and the most disliked. (It's a relief to learn that she left him, after enduring 15 years of marriage.)

There is something oddly personal, sociable and democratic about this excellent show. Early guidebooks are displayed beside the paintings and more than 40 artists are represented, their work covering 60 years. Works by Turner and Constable nudge those of local artists, such as the lovingly detailed etchings by Wordsworth's friend Thomas Green. The poet's own Guide to the Lakes began as an introduction to a set of "Select Views" by the Cumbrian artist Joseph Wilkinson in 1810, although Wordsworth thought them sorely inadequate, and dropped all reference to them in the finished book.

The flow of visitors swelled when the Napoleonic wars stopped continental jaunts and the "Lakers" were much mocked: William Gilpin was immortalised by Rowlandson in 1812 as the over-eager pedant on his scrawny nag, sketching a lake, in The Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque ("I'll prose it here, I'll verse it there/And picturesque it everywhere"). But the works in Savage Grandeur and Noblest Thoughts catch a particular moment in the way people looked at, responded to, and represented landscape. They help us understand the awed elation expressed by Georgian travellers and Victorian crowds.

"Such an impression I never received before, nor do I suppose that I ever can again," wrote Charles Lamb after visiting Coleridge in Keswick. "I have satisfied myself that there is such a thing as that which tourists call romantic, which I very much suspected before: they make such a spluttering about it . . . But I am returned . . . & you cannot conceive the degradation I felt at first, from being accustomed to walk free as air among mountains, & bathe in rivers without being controuled by any one, to come home and work: I felt very little. I had been dreaming that I was a very great man." These mountains, and the artists' views of them, can still enlarge the spirit and make us feel free as air, even today.

Savage Grandeur and Noblest Thoughts: Discovering the Lake District, 1750-1829 is at the Wordsworth Trust Museum, Grasmere. The exhibition is open until 21 June 2011.


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November 23 2009

A journey around the True North

Martin Wainwright talks to photographer Christopher Thomond about capturing the spirit of the north



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