The Arts Society Alton

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Charles Dickens - the man, his life and his characters.

Bertie Pearce made a welcome return to the town recently to give a presentation relating to the life of Hampshire-born author, Charles Dickens to members of The Arts Society Alton. He enlightened those present about the life and places relating to Dickens and interspersed the timeline with readings from his popular works.

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

Dickens brought into the world a staggering array of wonderful characters with orphans, starving children, misers, murderers and abusive school teachers among them. People such as Mr Mcawber, Fagin and Abel Magwitch remain in one’s literary psyche long after the books are put down. Largely self-educated, and although a somewhat flawed character in himself, Dickens possessed the genius to become the greatest writer of his age with 15 major novels and countless short stories and articles. Using his training at drama school, Bertie Pearce brought some of these characters to life and entertained, educated and enthused the audience who appreciated the attention to detail. It was a truly Dickensian experience.

The Two Faces of Russia

The Special Interest Day at Beech Village Hall in November was a fascinating day-long exploration of the history of Russia with Rosamund Bartlett, a favourite speaker with members owing to her wide knowledge and her enthusiasm for the culture of the country. In three sessions members were introduced to the history of the Russia through images and music, noting important cultural changes such as the adoption of Christianity in 988 and the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet developed by two Greek monks in the 9th century. Kiev was the first great capital followed by the foundation of Moscow in 1147. The enthusiastic audience, some of whom had made visits to both cities, learned about the development of the Kremlin as a fortress to resist the Mongol hordes from the East, its architecture, cathedrals and the links with Byzantium. With the rise of Moscow came the rise of the Orthodox Church and the importance of icons painted on wood.

Madonna and Child icon
Madonna and Child

In the early 18th century Peter the Great, the first Czar to travel abroad, moved the capital to his newly established St Petersburg. Paintings illustrating aspects of the change to European styles of painting and architecture were shown; even opera was imported from Italy in 1731. The Winter Palace was the official residence of the Russian monarchy from 1732 to 1917 and today the restored buildings form part of the Hermitage Museum. The importance of Catherine the Great, a Prussian Princess who married Peter III, continued the cultural development of the city and she founded the Hermitage collection in 1764 with 225 paintings from Berlin. A few years later she acquired 206 works from Sir Robert Walpole’s collection housed at Houghton Hall, causing a scandal in Britain when it realised the importance of the lost pictures, although Parliament had refused to buy them for the nation. In a twist of fate Houghton Hall in Norfolk was destroyed by fire in 1789 so the Russian purchase ‘saved’ the collection for posterity.

Repin's Volga Boatmen
Repin's Volga Boatmen

After questions, the speaker was thanked by Chairman, John Harrap who also paid tribute to Paulette Murray for the excellent lunch which always makes the day such an enjoyable event.

Furniture with timeless style,

John Erickson recently made a welcome return to The Arts Society Alton to talk to members and guests about the distinctive furniture made by the Shaker community. They were a religious group formed in England during the late 1700s, who moved to America. They created large buildings and houses for groups of people and had guiding principles of simplicity, utility and honesty and their beliefs were reflected in the well-made furniture of minimalist designs.

Shaker ladder back chairS
Shaker ladder back chairs

Shaker communities were largely self-sufficient and attempted to separate themselves from the outside world and to create a heaven-on-earth, members grew their own food, constructed their own buildings, and manufactured their own tools and household furnishings. They believed that every object in the home should have a function and that decoration was unnecessary. Furniture was made thoughtfully, with functional form and proportion. Ornamentation - such as inlays, carvings, metal handles, or veneers - were not incorporated as they were considered as deceitful.

Many examples of Shaker furniture survive and are preserved today, including such popular forms as tables, ladder-back chairs, rocking chairs and cabinets. The underlying principles of Shaker design have given inspiration to some of the finest designers of modern furniture. Their ladder back chairs, for instance, deeply influenced the work of an entire generation of post-war Danish designers.

It was a fascinating insight into an almost extinct religious group with a number of sayings including ‘hands to work - hearts to god’ and their use of simple and now iconic designs.

Life and times of an artists‘ colony.

The development of part of Holland Park in west London in the late Victorian period resulted in a grouping of celebrity artists who build a range of up-market houses with studios in keeping with their aspirations to make it into the upper echelons of polite Victorian society. That was the story told by visiting speaker Jennifer Toynbee-Holmes at a recent meeting of the recently re-named The Arts Society Alton.

History
Sir Frederick Leighton

With images of their works and biographical details she introduced the three central characters in the plot – Valentine Prinsep, George Watts and Frederic Leighton who achieved fame, fortune and celebrity status through their artistic talents. Watts is well known locally for he later moved to Compton, near Guildford, and built a gallery whilst his second wife had a mortuary chapel built for him.

The presence of these three in Kensington and the proximity of plenty of potential wealthy clients encouraged other artists to move to the area, particularly Holland Park Road and Melbury Road, and the audience were introduced to an extensive cast including Marcus Stone, Luke Fildes, Colin Hunter, William Burgess, Hamo Thornycroft, William Holman-Hunt, Solomon J Solomon, James Shannon and a solitary female artist, Louisa Starr.

It was a fascinating insight into a group of popular Victorian artists whose work went out of favour after the First World War, but which has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years and there is now a Victorian Room at Tate Britain where a selection of works by these artists is displayed.

Running the Arts

Jane Austen’s House has witnessed some interesting events over the years and recently on a bright autumn day it became the start of a fund-raising 10km run for Florian Schweizer of The Arts Society. Members of recently re-named The Arts Society Alton were at Chawton to wave him off as he set off to the Poet’s Stone near Steep, a memorial to Edward Thomas

Running
Florian Schweizer outside Jane Austen’s House
at the start of his 10km run

During its current Golden Jubilee year Florian, who is its national Chief Executive, has committed to complete fifty 10 kilometre runs to highlight the Society’s activities taking place at grass roots level and to raise £50,000 for its charitable projects - helping to preserve our artistic heritage, supporting the skills of artists and makers, and improving access to the arts for all.

Having starting in January 2018, Florian has been visiting places where Societies have local impact and connect with historic buildings, arts centres and other venues of artistic interest. Along the way he has been taking in important sites all over the country including the Angel of the North, the potteries in Stoke-on-Trent, Aldeburgh, Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Conwy Castle and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. This has provided him with an opportunity to meet members and to celebrate the anniversary. He was pleased to fly the flag for members in Alton and Petersfield and he passed the Edward Barnsley Workshop in Froxfield which has received support from The Arts Society for furniture making apprenticeships.

Celebrating 50 years

The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Area of The Arts Society held a Reception to celebrate the Golden Jubilee in Southampton City Art Gallery recently.

50 years
The Arts Society Alton Chairman, John Harrap (left)
with Lord and Lady Selborne at
Southampton City Art gallery

The Arts Society has 90,000 members worldwide and the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Area branch has 5135 members in 21 societies. Books and a video of the societies’ work were on show throughout the evening.

Guests to the reception were invited representing all branches of the art and heritage world in Hampshire and seen here are Lord and Lady Selborne with John Harrap (left), Chairman of The Arts Society Alton. Jacqui Varley, a trustee of The Arts Society, spoke of its history, and the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire Dame Judith Macgregor gave an amusing speech and toasted the Society for continuing its good work for the next 50 years and beyond.

Bowood House and Lacock Abbey

We left Alton in squally showers and blustery winds, but fortunately by the time we turned into the long drive that led up to Bowood House, the clouds had lifted. The helpful guide on the gate allowed the coach to go right up to the door of the house (or at least the door of the gift shop), which saved us all an extra walk. After a welcome cup of coffee and rather good biscuit, we were able to explore the house and gardens. The Bowood Estate was bought in 1754 by the 1st Earl of Shelburne, and his descendants have lived there ever since. In the Orangery there were fascinating exhibitions to show their connection with Napoleon and also The Peace Letter, written in 1917 which in calling for a negotiated peace with Germany correctly identified many of the challenges which lead to World War Two (in which two of the sons of the 6th Earl were killed). In addition, there is the room where Joseph Priestly discovered oxygen in 1774, and many fascinating displays upstairs of the family's service to Britain in many parts of the empire. Outside, the gardens were beautifully tended and it was a joy to see the terraces and also the spectacular and still colourful borders. A few of us even managed a brisk walk around the lake to admire the lovely cascade and Doric temple - parts of the garden laid out by Capability Brown.

Bowood and Lacock
Bowood

From Bowood we had a short drive to Lacock Abbey. Founded in the early 13th century by Ela, Countess of Salisbury, the abbey remained a nunnery until the dissolution of the monasteries in mid-16th century; it was then sold to Sir William Sharington who converted the convent into a residence where he and his family lived until it was given to the National Trust in 1944. The highlight of the visit to the house is the undoubtedly the beautiful cloisters, as well as the rooms which show many different architectural styles. The house later passed into the hands of the Talbot family, and also houses a fascinating small exhibition on the early days of photography. There was a requisite National Trust 'inclusiveness' exhibition, although this proved a rather impressive photographic collection of 'First Women'.

Bowood and Lacock
Lacock Bakery

Bowood and Lacock
Lacock

Across the road is the magical village of Lacock; with its central grid of four streets, it looks today much like it did 200 years ago. The oldest house is older than the 13th century abbey and everywhere is picture perfect. Conveniently, many of the houses are now tea shops, pubs and restaurants, so we were able to enjoy a quick lunch before exploring the shops selling trinkets and treats. If it all seemed familiar, it's because many films and television programmes are made here: the actors for Downton Abbey, the film, were due to arrive in a few days' time (shame we weren't there to offer to be extras).

It was a busy day: probably we would have all liked to spend more time in both places. But we were glad to have an easy run home, and be back in Alton by 6pm.

'A Bit of a Do'

The evening to celebrate the 20th birthday of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society and the Golden Jubilee of our parent organisation, The Arts Society (previously known as NADFAS), was hosted by The Arts Society Alton Chairman John Harrap who welcomed Lady Selborne - our President, and Chris Esplin-Jones, Area Chairman of The Arts Society and Lindsey, his wife, to one of the social events of the season. In a week notable for brilliant summer weather, the Henley Regatta, Wimbledon Tennis Championships and the Football World Cup, members and guests gathered in the delightful surroundings of Bury Court near Bentley for a performance by Simon Wallfisch - known as The Singing Cellist.

ADFAS
The Arts Society Alton

Before the musical entertainment in The Barn, members mingled and enjoyed drinks and canapes in the outstanding, enchanting and contemporary gardens on a warm July evening. Described by BBC Radio 3 as "A multi-talented musician of incredible versatility" Simon Wallfisch is one of Britain's most sought after Baritones, at home on both the opera and concert stage and was an inspired choice for the event.

Accompanied by Caroline Kennedy, who had a fabulous singing voice and Steven Higgins who played the piano and also sang, the audience were treated to a varied performance including operatic favourites, titles originally performed by well-known artists and spoofs based on well-known television and radio shows. Caroline's quick change of character, some of whom were very amusing and her most proficient ability to act on the hoof was really appreciated by the audience.

At the end of the evening the assembled throng was left wanting more, a true measure of the skill and multifarious talents of this accomplished trio of musical entertainers.

The entire event was masterminded by The Arts Society Alton Committee members Niven Baird, Vanessa MacMahon and Cynthia Buchanan and a capacity audience of 150 were in attendance.

Iron Man

The 20th Annual General Meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Art Society in the Martin Read Hall of Alton College saw the re-election of John Harrap as Chairman for the forthcoming year and the passing of a resolution to change the name to The Arts Society Alton, in line with the parent national organisation which adopted a new identity as The Arts Society last year.

Angel of the North
Angel of the North

The members of the re-named society then welcomed Rosalind Whyte who gave the annual Cline Kilner Memorial Lecture, so named after the founder of the Alton group 20 years ago. Speaking on the work of internationally known sculptor Antony Gormley, the audience learned that his sculptures, installations and public artworks are designed to investigate the relationship of the human body to space. Using illustrations of his work over the years, the speaker explained that his work has aimed to develop the potential opened up by sculpture since the 1960s through a critical engagement with both his own body and those of others in a way that confronts fundamental questions of where human beings stand in relation to nature and the cosmos. Through his work the sculptor wants 'to make the world a little more interesting' and is keen 'to keep art out of galleries'.

It seems Gormley wanted 'to pick up where Rodin had left off' and tries to identify the space of art as a place of becoming in which new behaviours, thoughts and feelings can arise. Examples of work shown included well-known pieces such as the 20m tall Angel of the North in Gateshead, the figure in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral, his series including American Field and the Field for the British Isles and the very popular Another Place installation on the seashore at Crosby - the last of these having been visited by members last year. The 1980 piece entitled Bed was composed of 13 thousand slices of Mother's Pride bread attracted considerable attention as he had eaten many slices to leave a body-sized cavity in the bread.

Gormley, who was born in London in 1950 was awarded the Turner Prize in 1994, was awarded an OBE in 1997, has been a Royal Academician since 2003 and was made a knight in the New Year's Honours list four years ago.

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