Creative Town, Proud City

Returning home from our Cornish week away, I was intrigued to find out more about the apartment building we had stayed in, the Barnaloft/Piazza apartments on Porthmeor Beach in St. Ives. The building was designed in the early 1960s by Henry C. Gilbert, better known as Gillie and integral to the artistic life of St Ives for the half century that he lived and worked in the town as an architect and an art gallerist. Bernard Leach said about him: “We owe Mr Gilbert a great deal for what he has contributed to art in what used to be a fishing village” and Leach actually moved into number 4 Barnaloft in the latter part of his life after he had given up potting.

Single Form With Two Hollows

Gillie brought two of Hepworth’s sculptures into the design for the Barnaloft/Piazza apartments – the bronze ‘Two forms in Echelon’ and ‘Single Form with Two Hollows’ at the east end of the building, and he championed local artists, holding an exhibition in the Guildhall to celebrate the granting of the Freedom of the borough of St Ives to Hepworth, Nicholson and Leach in the late 1960s.
Design Journal 1965

His design for the building won a medal from the ministry of Housing and Local Government in 1963. The award was for Good Design in Housing and the assessors recognised how the building had weathered well unlike previous winners of the award which had deteriorated rather quickly into an unkempt state.

One of the assessors for the award was Arthur Ling who was City Architect of Coventry between 1955 and 1964. We had been staying at the apartment building because my mother happens to know Ling’s daughter who now rents out the apartment to friends. Presumably Arthur Ling had judged the building worthy of the award in 1963 and then gone on to purchase one of the apartments as he liked it so much.

London's villages as per Abercrombie PlanArthur Ling also had a very interesting career, having previously been Chief Planning Officer for the London City Council – then the most prestigious office in the local authority sector – in the post war period when the authorities were considering how to rebuild the devastated city. London’s layout was at a ‘critical moment’ in its history, and in 1943 the County of London Plan, designed by Patrick Abercrombie and John H. Forshaw, was the first of two ambitious documents for post-war improvements to the capital. This was the forerunner to the Greater London Plan (the Abercrombie Plan) of 1944, and the film below was released by the Ministry of Information to explain the county plan. Abercrombie and Forshaw feature in the first two thirds of the film, and then Arthur Ling himself presents the planning concept of the Plan in the final third of the film.

The film, ‘The Proud City’, is fascinating for the old-fashioned, stilted delivery of its protagonists, as well as their concept of the new London as a series of neighbourhoods of around 10,000 inhabitants echoing the cluster of villages that characterised the ancient area. Their preoccupations with combating the dirt and disorder of the city with a utopian vision of a better, fairer city is a theme that is still in circulation with today’s regeneration programmes.


St I R&R

After the frenetic pace of work in the previous few weeks, July arrived with a sigh of relief because that meant it was time for our week’s rest and relaxation down in St Ives. The seven hour drive was pretty relentless but arriving on Saturday evening to our fabulous apartment with spectacular views across St Ives’ best beach made it all worth it. My son and I got straight into our swimmers and had an evening dip!

We were staying in a fantastic split level studio apartment in an iconic 1960s building. Designed by architect Henry Gilbert, the Piazza-Barnaloft apartment block won an architectural prize for its modern design which was awarded by Arthur Ling who had been the Chief Planning Officer for London until 1955. Ling had evidently liked the building so much he bought one of the flats, and here we were half a century later staying in that same flat, thanks to his daughter who is a friend of my mother.

Our bedroom balcony had views across the rooftops of St Ives and the main balcony overlooked Porthmeor Beach, a beautiful sandy beach with good waves for the body builders and surfers. I took photos all week from the balcony of the changing weather and changing tides.

We were a few minutes’ walk from Tate St Ives with its magical Patrick Heron windows in the foyer. Up the steps and down the hill towards the seafront, was the Barbara Hepworth Museum which was based in the house and studio that she occupied for the last twenty five years years of her life and it was just how I remember it from my last visit almost two decades ago.

This time, there was a touch of pathos about seeing Barbara’s sculpture Two Forms (Divided Circle) which was her equivalent of the artist’s proof; she had made six versions, one of which had been standing in my local park for the past 35 year until it was recently stolen for scrap metal.

I loved the Hepworth Museum, originally known as Trewyn Studios, with its various connnected outbuildings where the stone was carved and its garden where the finished sculptures were displayed just as they had been while she lived there. Visiting the Leach Pottery another day I was struck again by how fine the line is between live and work for artists doing both in the same building. Bernard Leach installed a kiln in the pottery in 1923 which lasted longer than Leach’s three marriages! The kiln wasn’t replaced until after the end of his potting days in 1975. This was the same year Barbara Hepworth died in an accidental fire caused as a result of her nightly habit of a cigarette in bed, in the same room in which she started off stone carving her monumental sculptures.

We listened to an excellent local guide talking about Hepworth and bringing a more personal take to her story. He explained how she had walked past the tall walls of Trewyn Studios for ten years on the way back from doing her shopping, never knowing what was behind them; it wasn’t until the building came up for sale that she realised how perfect it was as a space in which to live and work. This aspect of the story particularly spoke to me as I am currently in the process of looking for a house and studio – I’ve looked for three months now and there are very few places that would work….if only there were a Trewyn Studio in London for me!

Every Two and a Bit Years

My fellow Teepee artists and I have just come back from a weekend in Stourbridge in the Midlands to see the Glass Biennale at the International Festival of Glass. As the name suggests, this has always been held every two years since 2004 until last year when it was put on hold because the building that housed the exhibition at the Ruskin Glass Centre needed renovating. Having become a regular fixture in the glass calendar, the Glass Biennale at the International Festival of Glass was always looked forward to on the August bank holiday weekend, but for some odd reason the new director this year decided to hold it instead in May. We were told this was so people didn’t have to wait a full three years before the next one but, frankly, this seemed an unnecessary complication. We would have rather waited the extra three months to see the glass in the sun. So it could have been the occasional drizzle and cold or it could have been the tighter hold on the finances by the new director, but somehow the whole festival felt a little flat.


I was not alone in finding the layout of the Glass Biennale exhibition a little strange. There seemed to be very few wall panels, and also a surprisingly high proportion of object based work, but I felt that the three long tables with objects squeezed onto them didn’t really present the glass in its best light. Curator Matt Duran had apparently explained to the audience at the private view the night before that the layout was meant to be read as a kind of stage set, and I could understand this while we were sitting on the chairs that had been laid out like an audience for the glass show. However once I stood up and walked around to actually look at the glass, it felt more like a table sale with pieces jostling for space.

Despite what I thought was a great shame that each object had not been given space to breathe, there were some interesting juxtapositions set up because of the proximity. One area on the tallest table was given over to glass which looked more like archaeological artefacts that had just been dug up and brushed down. Rachel Elliot’s ammonite form ‘Crude’ was lovely and quite different from what she normally makes. I also really loved James Masktrey’s “Shackleton’s Scrimshaw” which were five bottles which looked like they were filled with sea mist and Shackleton’s historical documents suspended inside. The concerns with history and memories were echoed in Lisa Catherine Sheppy’s suspended ‘Lost Pockets’ which hung screenprinted and fused glass nuggets in sheer organza pockets. I also really liked the overall winner of the Biennale, a gorgeous cast piece by Ashraf Hanna that I just wanted to stare into and immerse myself in its depth of colour.

We wandered around the Ruskin Glass Centre in the afternoon, watching a painting demonstration by the delightful Cappy Thompson who had run a masterclass earlier in the week and listening to a choir who sung harmoniously as the sun came out. We saw Georgia Redpath’s lovely installation which showed the four stages of making her complex cast pieces and then had a chat with her in her studio, admiring her work. We had lots of other places in and around Stourbridge to visit as part of the International Festival of Glass. We saw an engraving exhibition at the Red House Glass Cone after which we sat outside for a chilly cup of tea as actors in historical dress finished their work showing visitors round the museum and headed home in full costume.

Following this, came a Church Crawl, visiting various churches in the area for their own wonderful stained glass such as this example from the Wordsley Methodist Church. In fact in the back of the church there was an exhibition run by Bruntnell Astley. Putting on an exhibition when one is a photographer, as Simon Bruntnell is, must be made easier by the fact one has so many wonderful images to choose from. It seems as though Simon was making a good job of it as he had sold quite a number of pieces, possibly more than at the Biennale. Many of his artists were also showing at the Biennale, including our old friend Nicholas Collins. We spotted a wonderful Georgia Redpath piece that had sold – it was being shown with a cardboard base, but there were arrangements for the base to be cast in bronze later on. The exhibition continued into the garden where there were some grand Jenny Pickford glass and metal sculptures. My favourite pieces of all were a delicious collection of objects by Elliot Walker, darkly textural black blown shapes, and a glass skull cast in a delicious lime green glass.

On Sunday we had just enough time to squeeze in a dash around another church despite the imminent baptism that was about to happen and a lecture back in the Ruskin Glass Centre before lunch. Before setting off back to London we went to see the exhibition of contemporary Hungarian Glass. A small but perfectly formed exhibition, we were debating between us how Péter Borkovics made his wonderful cast piece when the curator suddenly popped up in our midst and explained the technique in terms that made it seem almost simple compared to our convoluted imaginationary methods. We marvelled at the skills required to make ‘Japanese and Chinese’, a rather saucy depiction of two figures in a bath. I fell in love with a smooth jewel-like curl of cast glass by Lazslo Lukacsi, and its subtly irridescent surface inhabited my dreams as I snoozed in the car on the long journey back to London.

Swansea Sojourn

I was delighted to have been asked to be a judge for the Stevens Competition this year and so I had a much needed day away from the studio yesterday with an invitation to make my way to the University of Wales. The commission attached to this year’s competition is to be offered at the newly renovated School of Glass in Swansea.


Having read about the building on the train journey from Paddington,  I was looking forward to see how the architects had integrated a modern glass extension onto the original building which was contructed in 1887. I had been told the campus was five or ten minutes from the station, and so taking directions from customer services in the station and following the map on my phone I was slightly bemused when, twenty minutes later, I found myself still walking up an interminable hill looking for the open campus I had imagined from looking at the architect’s image (above).

When my mobile told me I was at my destination, I knew I had been misdirected. It was the wrong building! It turned out that the School of Glass was at the bottom of the hill right in the middle of the town centre – I had been directed to the School of Art surrounded by space at the top of the hill. Don’t you just love those architects’ drawings which blank out the hustle bustle of the surroundings?! I must have walked right past it staring at my mobile!

Anyway I finally joined the other judges on the tour around the building led by Dr Vanessa Cutler who runs the degree and PHD courses in glass at the University. Our group was later described as “kids in a candy store” looking at the facilities, and it’s not surprising – I was wildly envious going from room to well-equipped room full of what looked like brand new equipment! It was like being taken into a stained glass treasury when we descended into the basement store, packed to the gills with racks of sample glass panels from previous Stevens Competitions. We joked that somewhere within the warren of rooms would be hidden an original Johannes Schreiter panel, but in fact we only had to look up to see a Schreiter panel installed in the staircase to the Glass department, a legacy of the time in the 1970’s -90’s that German Masters came and worked with the students in the School.

Reading Room


The last room we visited in the beautiful grade II listed building was a stunning circular reading room, once the Swansea Central Library, temporarily used as a Doctor Who set and, after the building was acquired by the University, briefly used as a leading room for the Stained Glass courses. The architects had applied a light touch when renovating this splendid Victorian interior, though they had managed to shift the entire entrance porch a metre forward into the space to allow for disabled access.

After a jolly lunch in the Dragon Hotel down the road, we disbanded again embarking on our various train and car journeys back to our respective homes around the country, and agreeing to meet again in Southwark Cathedral in April for the judging of the compettion.



On the train on the way back, I looked at further online images of the lovely building and realised with some irony that there had been a big clue calling out to me to announce the location of Alexandra Road campus…. I managed to walk straight past an enormous sign with letters four feet high saying “Alex”.




I’ve just got back from a lovely week in sun-dried Malta to return to a rain-drenched Britain and despite the quite obvious contrasts in our climates, my first impression of the country was actually the noticeable similarities rather than the differences. Malta gained independence from the UK in 1964 but the British influence is still evident everywhere right down to the three pin plugs and the cars driving on the left. The Maltese language is a curious mixture of both Italian and Arabic influences, and it is the only historically Semitic language spoken in Europe so though it uses a Latin alphabet it includes modified letters. However everyone that we spoke to could speak perfect English, being as it is the other official language of Malta.

At only 120 square miles, the island is pretty tiny so we spent our week traversing back and forth on the Arriva-style buses, taking in the country. We took refuge from the sun in the shady maze-like streets of Mdina, the ancient walled city which was the old capital of the country. This is where St Paul the Apostle was said to have lived after being shipwrecked on the island, and its history stretches back 4000 years. Nowadays Mdina is home to just 300 inhabitants, and though you can find numerous private palaces, museums and a magnificent Cathedral within the medieval grid of narrow sandstone streets, one overwhelmingly feels the truth in its colloquial name – ‘The Silent City’. It felt like the highest point in Malta and, sipping cappuccinos on a museum cafe terrace, we were afforded an amazing view right across the flat landscape towards the northeastern coast.

We stayed in a gorgeous apartment in Spinola Bay, a picturesque harbour on the lively St Julian’s coastline. We looked out from our balcony each day to sight of the fishing boats bobbing in the early morning waters and the committed joggers getting in their exercise along the seafront before the sun got too hot. Curving round and out towards the laidback restaurant terraces and the lavish art hotel on the other side of Spinola Bay, the inlet reached its apogee at a busy roundabout marked by a contemporary sculpture. Richard England’s creamy white stone sculpture spells out the word LOVE twice over, but it has apparently antagonised locals that its letters are upside down.

On our first day’s exploratory walks in the area, we passed the love sculpture at 3pm when its intention was entirely obvious as there was a perfect shadow cast upon the pavement. But every time I returned to take another photograph, the sun was too high or too low to recreate the word against the ground. Perhaps it was the suggestion of the fleeting nature of love which was what had prompted local criticism? As if to counteract this interpretation the more romantic pairs of passers-by have started to mimic the Parisian habit of the Pont de l’Archevêché by attaching love-locks bearing their initials and tossing the key into the blue waters of the Mediterranean to declare their eternal love. We tried to follow this amorous tradition but, in typical Brit-style, logistics came before romance and the acquisition of a spare padlock seemed too much of a challenge!

On our penultimate day we visited Valletta, the capital city which I had glimpsed many times from across the bay. The St John Co-Cathedral in the center of the city looked austere from outside, but rather took our breath away once inside. Every single surface was decorated in the most extravagant Baroque pattern and imagery, apparently added many years after the building of the church in the late 16th century. The lustrous gold surfaces on every decorative motif seemed to reflect the heat of the day which entered with the sweaty waves of tourists. Fans had been set up in the space but to little effect, and with the clutter of people and the clatter of cameras and audio guides, it was a relief to climb the stone steps up to a cooler inner room. I turned a corner and there, facing each other from either end of this sanctum, were two world-famous Caravaggio paintings: The Beheading of St John the Baptist and St Jerome Writing. Many years ago I did my degree in history of art at the Courtauld Institute, and I probably should have known about Caravaggio’s history in Malta but these extraordinary paintings came as a complete surprise. We sat quietly and enjoyed the chiaroscuro effects as we underwent our own form of chiaruscuro with our hot flushed faces cooling to a more normal skin tone colour in the dark of the church.

See further travel photos here