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August 27 2013

Four short links: 28 August 2013

  1. Juju — Canonical’s cloud orchestration software, intended to be a peer of chef and puppet. (via svrn)
  2. Cultural Heritage Symbols — workshopped icons to indicate interactives, big data, makerspaces, etc. (via Courtney Johnston)
  3. Quinn Norton: Students as Hackers (EdTalks) — if you really want to understand the future, don’t look at how people are looking at technology, look at how they are misusing technology.
  4. noflo.js — visual flow controls for Javascript.

August 17 2012

Written in stone: the UK's best historic towns

TV historian Dan Cruickshank picks beautiful towns around the UK noted for their historic architecture and the tales they tell of life down the centuries

Our historic towns are a precious cultural treasure. I've been exploring them for decades, extracting secrets about the ways people built, lived, toiled and took their pleasures through the generations.

A particular joy is the great diversity in the building materials and methods with which towns were built. Within a few miles the very nature of the settlements can change, depending on available materials. So you find brick in much of south-east England, timber in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, limestone in Somerset and the Cotswolds, sandstone in Cumberland, and granite in much of Cornwall and Scotland. Architectural and building styles also change, evolve and survive in a most charming way, to give each town its own vernacular character.

The most beautiful and best- preserved of our historic towns are well-known, and rightly so, but one of the wonders of these islands is that many fascinating places are taken for granted or overlooked. Ludlow in Shropshire is a perfect example: rising on a plateau above the river Teme on the border of England and Wales, it was a frontier town and fortified with wall, gates and a mighty castle.

It was also a market town, so it has a long wide market square and a "shambles" of alleys once home to victuallers and butchers. But best of all is its glorious mix of building materials and styles. You find 16th- and early-17th-century timber-framed structures with late Gothic or Renaissance details – such as the Feathers Inn – jostling with sedate brick-built Georgian houses. A stroll through the city gate and up Broad Street – lined with the mansions of long-forgotten rural grandees – is a great urban experience.

Frome, in Somerset, is very different. It is primarily a limestone town, its houses built of square ashlar blocks or coursed rubble rendered with lime. Its golden age was in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it flourished as a market and coaching town and a centre for the wool industry. The old weavers' quarter, called the Trinity, dates from the late 17th century and incorporates charming and pioneering industrial housing. It was almost swept away in the 1970s but, at the 11th hour, enough was saved to remind us of what had been, and give extra character to this most rewarding town.

As with all the best towns, the pleasure of a walk through Frome is far more than the sum of its parts. The spaces, the sustained streets, the sinuous forms, the vistas framed and enclosed, the surprise as corners are turned and amazing buildings or compositions emerge, offer great aesthetic thrills. There is Cheap Street – lined with early buildings, steep, paved and with a central gutter or "canal", once a common feature in our towns and cities – the steep and cobbled Catherine Hill, Stony Street and Gentle Street with their generous Georgian houses, and the astonishing temple-like early 18th-century Rook Street Chapel.

For urban brick at its best, explore Blandford Forum in Dorset. Here the town centre, destroyed by fire in 1731, was soon rebuilt in a splendid English baroque manner by equally splendidly named local builders the Bastard brothers. The bricks are of superb quality and colour, and the way they are laid and detailed displays superlative craftsmanship and deep sensibility. Add to this the Bastards' eye for baroque styling, particularly fashionable in the West Country: facades articulated with pilasters and dressed with details inspired by the work of Borromini in Rome.

It's all amazing, and organised around a splendid baroque parish church, also designed by the Bastards. This heady combination of grand church and swaggering houses gives this little town the architectural sophistication and, at moments, the presence of a great city.

For yet greater 18th-century architectural and metropolitan sophistication in a smallish town, visit Stamford in Lincolnshire. Here all is stone-built – to the highest quality – and baroque in spirit. The building types – theatre, assembly room and elegant shops as well as large terraced houses – act as reminders that provincial towns were once the centres of their own world, places of culture, sophistication, fashion and local pride.

A walk through the streets of Stamford today offers striking contrasts. There is wonderful 18th-century architecture – the memorable George Hotel on St Martin's offers a vivid vignette of the glorious age of coach travel – and there are the more commercial streets, now too often strewn with litter and lined with bland shopfronts and chain stores.

In Wales the coastal town of Tenby, with its nearly complete late-13th-century walls, was created as a fortified redoubt of English and Flemish settlers and merchants within Wales. Much survives of this period, but there is also evidence of the town's brief time as a resort for the early-19th-century novelty of therapeutic sea-bathing. So elegant walks look onto splendid beaches that were once part of the town's medieval defences and by the Regency period were picturesque attributes of a fashionable pleasure.

Among defensible towns, little can compete with Berwick-upon-Tweed, the long-disputed border town between Scotland and England. It has Britain's only complete set of 16th-century town defences, and within these the town is mostly Georgian, including a sprawling early-18th-century barracks designed in bold and masculine baroque manner by Sir John Vanbrugh's Office of Works.

One of my favourite towns, and one often overlooked, is Armagh in Northern Ireland. Its two cathedrals, both dedicated to St Patrick – one medieval and Protestant, the other mid-19th-century and Catholic – eye each other from high ground at either end of Armagh. Because of the cathedrals and its administrative importance, Armagh was made a city in 1994, one of the UK's smallest. Both cathedrals are remarkable – the Protestant one largely because of its glorious monuments, the Catholic one because of its astonishingly ornate and colourful Gothic Revival architecture.

But for me the great glory of Armagh is its domestic and civic architecture, much of it Georgian and the legacy of an enlightened late-18th-century Protestant cleric, Archbishop Richard Robinson. He gave the town a number of buildings of fine design that express admirable and civilised virtues, including a handsome neo-classical public library, built in 1771, and an observatory, built in 1790.

More visually thrilling are the streets: the park-like Mall, lined on one side with splendid late-Georgian houses, and, best of all, the terrace on Vicars Hill, by the Protestant cathedral. The house facades have no ostentatious detail: the doors are simply marked with blocks of stone, the windows no more than holes punched in the rendered wall. But what holes! In their proportions and relationships they reflect classical design stretching back to the Renaissance, Rome and beyond. In their humility and self-effacing beauty, they are emblematic of all that is best about UK architecture.

Dan Cruickshank presents BBC2's The Country House Revealed, and Brick by Brick: Rebuilding Our Past © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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The image of chivalry: the Black Prince's effigy reveals the medieval military ideal

This 14th-century sculpture in Canterbury cathedral befits a great warrior who embodied medieval England's idea of the perfect knight

August 16 2012

Story of British art: the Wilton Diptych

This rapturous work of 14th-century art belonged to Richard II, although the artist is unknown. The king had it made so he could carry it around as a mobile altarpiece

August 15 2012

Medieval mischief: monks bring light relief to Macclesfield

Religious books were 'illuminated' by monks, who filled the margins with cheeky images, and the Macclesfield psalter is a master of English illumination

August 14 2012

Digging with dignity: Adam delving, Canterbury Cathedral's wondrous window

Jonathan Jones: This stunning stained glass window, created around 1176, still glows with vivid colour and moving humanity. It depicts Adam working the land – the ideal portrayal of a medieval peasant

August 13 2012

Fitzwilliam Museum appeals for £3.9m to buy Poussin masterpiece

Cambridge museum has until November to buy Extreme Unction, one of a series on the sacraments by 17th-century old master

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has launched a £3.9m appeal to buy a sombre masterpiece by Poussin with a tangled recent history that belies its calm grandeur.

The painting, Extreme Unction, is from a famous series depicting the seven sacraments by the 17th-century French artist, which has been in an aristocratic English collection for more than two centuries, but has been on and off the market in recent years.

This one is available as a tax deal with the government, in lieu of the inheritance tax owed by the trustees of the Dukes of Rutland from the sale of another painting in the series to the United States last year.

Timothy Potts, the director of the Fitzwilliam, said securing the work for Cambridge would be its most significant old master acquisition in a century. It would be a parting coup for Potts, who leaves next month to take over as director at the Getty museum in California, the wealthiest art museum in the world.

The Art Fund charity – its pockets almost emptied by the £850,000 it gave the university museum's great rival, the Ashmolean in Oxford, to buy a Manet – is giving £100,000. It is also appealing to all its members and supporters to back the appeal for a painting seen as a landmark in art history that has influenced generations of later artists.

When the seven paintings first came to England in the 18th century, Joshua Reynolds, then president of the Royal Academy – where George III came to see them – said: "I think upon the whole that this must be considered as the greatest work of Poussin, who was certainly one of the greatest painters that ever lived."

Poussin regarded Extreme Unction – the ashen figure of a man on his deathbed being anointed with oil, the final sacrament for a Christian – as one of his greatest. He wrote to his friend Fréart de Chantelou, who commissioned a second series, that the subject was "worthy of an Apelles", the most famous Greek painter of antiquity.

The paintings were bought by the Dukes of Rutland in 1785. One was destroyed in a fire at Belvoir Castle in the 19th century, and another was sold to the National Gallery in Washington in the early 20th century. The remaining five were on display for several years at the National Gallery in London.

Their sale was announced, the gallery began fundraising, and then the sale was cancelled. By the time the sale was confirmed again, the gallery was in the throes of fundraising to purchase, with the National Gallery in Scotland, the great Titian paintings – currently the subject of Metamorphosis, a multimedia arts project – and had no hope of raising the money to buy the Poussins as well. Ordination was duly sold last year to the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas for $24.3m (£15.5m).

Extreme Unction is regarded as of such outstanding importance that the government has accepted it in lieu of the tax owed on the American sale, but since it is valued at £14m, more than the tax owed, the Fitzwilliam has to raise the balance.

The future of the remaining three paintings in the series – Eucharist, Confirmation and Marriage – has not been announced.

The painting is already on display, free, at the Fitzwilliam. Potts called it "a national and international treasure" which would prove a "destination painting", drawing many new visitors to the museum. The museum has until November to raise the money. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Story of British art: Gloucester Cathedral

The architectural flourishes that distinguish this Gothic masterpiece date from the era of a plague that left Britain devastated – but suggest a serene belief in paradise

August 10 2012

Sacred and secular: the Tring Tiles reveal the playful world of Chaucer's time

Jonathan Jones: These funny 14th-century artworks tell robust apocryphal tales about the childhood of Christ in a raw comic strip full of folkloric strangeness – and oddly set apart from Christianity

August 09 2012

Tyne immemorial: the bronze knight found in a northern river

Jonathan Jones: This treasure from the middle ages – actually an aquamanile, or jug used for washing one's hands when eating – is a powerful exemplar of the medieval cult of chivalry

August 08 2012

The middle ages invented fine art ... and Britain itself

The medieval world is caricatured as ignorant and filthy, but the strong central state that emerged sponsored art of huge ambition

What did the middle ages ever do for us? This week, my Guardian series The Story of British Art enters the age of castles, cathedrals and brightly painted manuscripts. The medieval world is the most misunderstood and underrated of all cultural epochs. It is caricatured as barbarous, ignorant and filthy. In reality, as I think my favourite works of medieval British art like today's Chapel of St John's show, we owe a huge amount to the middle ages. This is the age that truly invented fine art, the worship of beauty and the idea that art can change your soul. It also invented Britain.

I've become aware, looking at early British art, how it was made by many different cultures that came and went on these islands. This place was a cultural football kicked back and forth. No single national identity existed. The islands were full of noises in different languages, not to mention runic inscriptions left by Vikings that look like magic spells out of The Lord of the Rings. But suddenly in 1066 William the Conqueror founded a monarchy that with some twists and turns is still going. England's strong central state sponsored art of huge ambition. Great cathedrals started to rise, like Durham, which goes right back to early Norman times. The royal Norman origins of medieval high art in Britain are obvious in the Chapel of St John's, which dates from just a few years after 1066 and is part of William's White Tower.

Chapel? Cathedral? Aren't those architecture? But this is the fantastic, and very contemporary, thing about medieval art. Knights in armour did not fuss about where art ended and a building began. They created all-encompassing atmospheric environments, installations in stone and glass. In museums, medieval art can seem remote, because it was never made for museums. It was made to be part of life, to illuminate a theatre of worship, war, or love.

Art was incredibly serious in the middle ages. It had to reveal heaven and cleanse the soul. It had to tell stories that illiterate peasants could understand. A lot of Britain's medieval heritage was destroyed in the Reformation by two devastating onslaughts – Henry VIII's ransacking of monasteries and the iconoclastic rage of the Puritans. But choice selections to come in The Story of British Art show how many wonders survive. The middle ages made us who we are. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Story of British art: the Chapel of St John in the Tower of London

This Romanesque chapel hidden inside a forbidden fortress is a ravishing masterpiece of the Middle Ages

Liverpool prepares to mark Slavery Remembrance Day

The city's 13th annual celebration will see major building renamed after Martin Luther King, with his son unveiling a plaque

Liverpool's links to the slave trade are well-known, and will be recalled on 23 August at the Slavery Remembrance Day organised by the Museum of Slavery. A number of events are being held in the city this month, including a visit from Mr Martin Luther King III, son of the murdered US civil rights leader.

Liverpool apologised in 1999 for its prominent role in the 'triangular trade' which saw ships sail to West Africa, ship slaves to the Caribbean and return laden with sugar. The radical Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was the son of a major slave plantation owner and much of the centre's noble architecture was built with profits from the trade.

The date, which Liverpool has marked every year since the apology, commemorates an uprising of enslaved Africans on the island of Saint Domingue, modern-day Haiti, in 1791. It was chosen by UNESCO which picked it as a reminder that enslaved Africans played a major part in their own liberation.

The museum says:

This year we welcome Martin Luther King III, eldest son of the great Civil Rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Our guest offers a powerful reminder that it is as important as ever to acknowledge a major period of trauma and injustice in world history.

You can see the full programme of events on the museum's website here. Highlights include a memorial lecture from King, a Walk of Remembrance and a libation ceremony. In a specifically local tribute to the King family, the Dock Traffic Office, a National Museums Liverpool building, will be named after Martin Luther King Jr with a plaque unveiled by his son.

The museum also quotes an excerpt from Slavepool, a poem by Mohammed Khalil, recounting the city's role in the slave trade:

Branded like beasts who feel no pain
And all for Merrye Englande's gain

But England's Changing-Rearranging
Only we can clear our Name

Growing! Knowing! Trade Winds are blowing!
Things'll nevva be the same.

Liverpool Slavery Remembrance Initiative is a partnership between National Museums Liverpool, individuals from the Liverpool black community, Liverpool city council and The Mersey Partnership.

The museum says that the Day seeks to:

commemorate the lives and deaths of the millions of enslaved Africans and their descendants who were central to the rise of Britain as an industrial power.

remember that we live with the legacies of transatlantic slavery such as racism and discrimination and ongoing inequalities, injustices and exploitation

celebrate the resistance, rebellion and revolution that ended slavery, as well as the rise of popular movements for racial justice and social change that said both then and now "never again".

It adds:

Resistance to injustices and discrimination is a central theme of the International Slavery Museum and that is why we fully support the continued observance of this important event.

Liverpool's most famous sugar name, Tate & Lyle, dates from well after the abolition of slavery. Henry Tate - commemorated in the four galleries including Tate Liverpool which used his money and bear his name - and Abraham Lyle did not start their refining businesses until 1859 and 1865 and neither's family had previous involvement in the trade. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 07 2012

Story of British art: the Bayeux Tapestry

This 11th-century comic strip is full of telling details about the battle that gave William of Normandy the kingdom he believed his by right

August 06 2012

Story of British art: the Alfred Jewel

This mysterious 9th-century object commissioned by King Alfred may have been a pointer used while reading Bibles he sent round his kingdom, which signalled the end of the Dark Ages

August 03 2012

Story of British art

These 12th-century chess pieces inspired the wizard chess set in the film of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and are the most impressive Norse objects ever found in Britain

August 02 2012

Thieves steal Derby Museum artefacts worth £53,000

Police say hoard of items, including 18th- and 19th-century watches, were taken from depot between 2 May and 19 June

A collection of coins, medals and watches worth £53,000 has been stolen from a museum's storage facility. The 1,000 artefacts from the Derby Museum and Art Gallery's city-based storage site were stolen some time between 2 May and 19 June, Derbyshire police said. None of the items have been found.

Among the hoard is a collection of about 20 18th- and 19th-century gold and silver watches worth up to £3,000 each. These includes examples made by clockmaker and scientist John Whitehurst, who was a member of the Midlands' based Lunar Society, and a contemporary of famous Derby artist Joseph Wright.

Coins dating back more than 800 years have also been stolen, as well as more modern coins from the early 20th century. The items were locked away and only used for exhibitions and special viewings.

A spokeswoman for Derbyshire police said museum staff had worked on the collection recently, but the thefts came to light only when another museum made a request to borrow some of the items.

The theft was recorded with the Metropolitan police arts crime unit as well as the Arts Council England security advisory service in the hope that the thief would try to sell them.

Meanwhile, additional security measures and procedures have been put in place at the storage facility.

Investigating officer Detective Constable Dee Hornblower said: "There has been no sign of a break-in at the premises, so the possibility that this was carried out with inside knowledge has at this stage not been ruled out. We have circulated details of the stolen items to every police force in the country in the hope that they can be traced."

Derby city council cabinet member for leisure and culture Martin Repton said: "Our ultimate fear is that some of these items which are of a relative low monetary value could potentially be discarded by the culprit or culprits, meaning that they would be lost for ever with little chance of recovery.

"We are therefore also appealing to members of the public who may have any information to contact Derbyshire police."

Anyone with information about the incident, or the whereabouts of the stolen items, should call police on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800-555 111. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Stonehenge: where did it all go wrong?

The Romantics looked on Stonehenge with a sense of awe – but in contemporary culture, the standing stones have become a bit of a joke

Jeremy Deller's bouncy-castle Stonehenge, entitled Sacrilege, which is in London this week on its national Olympic tour, is the latest in a long line of artistic images of Britain's most famous ancient monument. That's not surprising in itself. What is interesting is how changing portrayals of Stonehenge have revealed contrasting moments in cultural history.

Another way of putting this might be: where did it all go wrong for Stonehenge?

In the Romantic age John Constable pictured Stonehenge as a mighty enigma on the wilderness of Salisbury Plain. The stones loom in craggy loneliness under a sky pierced by shafts of sublime light. It is intensely dramatic and serious – as far from a bouncy castle as you can get.

Constable's fascination with these ancient stones is shared by his contemporary William Blake. For Blake, the silent prehistoric monument is a work of the giant Albion who in an image from his illustrated poem Jerusalem stands over it with dividers and a giant hammer. It is part of Blake's vision of an enchanted and chosen British landscape, recently expressed in the modern hymn using his words that kicked off the Olympic opening ceremony.

The Romantic cult of Stonehenge was shared, or shaped, by the first proper archaeologist of Neolithic Britain, the 18th-century "antiquarian" William Stukeley. He depicted Stonehenge in the engravings that illustrate his books as a temple of the Druids. He created the myth still maintained by some that the Druids built this "temple".

For these Romantics, the dark stones on the plain were a mystery at the heart of the British landscape. Today's images show that we are much less in love with our "green and pleasant land". Stonehenge is, in contemporary culture, a bit of a joke.

I blame Spinal Tap. In Rob Reiner's satire on pompous rock bands, This Is Spinal Tap, the Tap make a mistake in briefing the designer of a Stonehenge replica for their show, and instead of the full-size stone circle that was supposed to awe their fans, they play beside a tiny model. The words to their heavy-metal anthem Stonehenge hilariously mock the dying embers of Romanticism:

"Stonehenge! Where the demons dwell
Where the banshees live and they do live well
Stonehenge! Where a man's a man
And the children dance to the Pipes of Pan"

Recent artistic images of Stonehenge have shared this less than reverent humour. In 1998 Aleksandra Mir proposed a public artwork to the commissioning body Artangel. She wanted to make a full-sized replica of Stonehenge near to the original, that people could visit and enjoy, climbing among the stones as they wished – unlike the real Stonehenge, where English Heritage forbids access to the stones themselves for conservation reasons. You just have to walk around them. Her idea was rejected, but she presented a scale model in an ICA exhibition.

Deller too offers the access to Stonehenge that English Heritage denies – with added bounce. It's not exactly reverent or awed. What would William Blake say?

And did those feet in ancient time bounce upon England's pastures green? © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

The story of British art

Jonathan Jones pays tribute to Viking culture with this early 12th century sword guard, its sides finely decorated with a pair of stylised animals

August 01 2012

The story of British art: Savage warrior – Sutton Hoo Helmet

Jonathan Jones continues his exploration of British art with a terrifying look into the dark eyeholes of a war helmet that transports us deep into the world of the Saxons

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