The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes. MARCEL PROUST

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Travelling With Howard Hodgkin

Rain by Howard Hodgkin. I saw this picture when I visited Tate Britain in December 2013.

I think a lot of people in England are afraid of pictures which have visible emotions in them. They feel calmer in front of pictures which are placid. They want to be distanced from the feeling, to look out at the storm through a window, or a frame. HOWARD HODGKIN

I have just read Andrew Graham-Dixon's monograph on the contemporary British painter, Howard Hodgkin (Howard Hodgkin, Thames & Hudson, 1994; revised 2001). I really like Hodgkin, whose tentatively suggestive yet boldly vibrant oils — usually painted on rough bare wood — inhabit a region somewhere in-between the figurative and the abstract. This borderline area appeals to me very much: too much representation and you're back in the 19th century; too much abstraction and it can become tedious and lead to a dead-end. Hodgkin gets the balance right. For me he's one of the most interesting artists of the last 50 years, and I rarely fail to be drawn into his paintings and emotionally engaged by them. For this is what he is painting — representational pictures of emotional situations, as he himself stated.

The only way an artist can communicate with the world at large is on the level of feeling. I think the function of the artist is to practise his art to such a level that, like the soul leaving the body, it comes out into the world and affects other people. HOWARD HODGKIN

Many of Hodgkin's paintings have 'abroad' as their theme — France, Venice, Naples, Egypt, India, Morocco. Indeed, all his work is to some extent about travel, about transporting the viewer to 'somewhere else'.

To travel is to see different things and it is also to see things differently. When we travel to a foreign place, our habits and routines are disturbed and our experience of the world takes on a different texture. We notice things that back home we often take for granted or do not give a second thought to: the colours of a landscape, the forms of its vegetation, new sounds and smells; the architecture, how coffee is served, designs on cigarette packets, the way people dress and the sort of litter they leave on the street; the heat or the light, the size of raindrops and the sound they make when they land. Travelling, we study the world more inquisitively and alertly than usual. We look at it as intently as if it were art [my italics]. ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON

Tuesday, 28 October 2014


Before leaving Somerset, we spent a day in Bath, or Aquae Sulis, as the Romans called it. Before the Romans, the ancient Britons worshipped Sulis here — a life-giving mother goddess, guardian of the hot springs. The Romans merged Sulis with Minerva (who was also equated with the Greek goddess Athena, and is one of my favourite goddesses): deity of wisdom, music, poetry, weaving, crafts, magic, medicine, trade and commerce — kind of covering all options. Minerva-Athena is one of the daughters of Jupiter-Zeus, and is often depicted with an owl. The photo shows the Roman Baths at Bath, which have been impressively excavated, and are one of Britain's biggest cultural tourist attractions. In a bid to avoid the crowds, we arrived as soon as the doors had opened.

Overlooking the Baths is Bath Abbey, the Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul — which used to be a Benedictine monastery in medieval times. It has been heavily restored.

Detail from the Baths' upper southern wall, which are post-Roman. The older bits are the lower bits.

The world dies over and over again, but the skeleton always gets up and walks. HENRY MILLER. But this one ain't going nowhere. I'm sure he or she would rather stay in the glass case than being pushed and shoved by a million camera-wielding, smartphone-touting tourists. 

There's lots to see in the Roman Baths Museum. I think this carving was captioned 'Three Women', but I can't remember for sure. Perhaps it depicts the mythological Wyrd (Weird) Sisters, developed by Shakespeare as the Three Witches in Macbeth — though they don't particularly look like witches. On the other hand, they may be the Three Fates of Roman religion, the Parcae: Nona, Decima and Morta. Or perhaps they are simply three women with very round heads and very thin necks.

The partially reconstructed pediment from Bath's Roman temple of Sulis Minerva. Scholars think that the head in the centre is a Gorgon's head. Just to the right of the head, tucked into the corner, is an owl, symbol of Minerva.

The gilt bronze head of Sulis Minerva — probably from a statue of the goddess which stood in the temple. Only two other fragments of gilt bronze sculptures from Roman Britain have ever been found.

Pulteney Bridge over the river Avon in Bath, designed by Robert Adam and completed in 1774. It has shops along both sides of its span. I don't know about you, but what came immediately to my mind was the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. 

From the sublime to . . . well, the sublime. It's Ronnie Wood's guitar on display in the window of a Bath commercial art gallery! There were also his mate Bob Dylan's paintings for sale inside. 


Just north of Glastonbury lies Wells, England's smallest city. Although Wells only has around 11,500 inhabitants, it is a city because it has a diocesan cathedral and, consequently, is the seat of a bishop (the Latin cathedra means 'seat' or 'throne'). This is the cathedral's magnificently carved west front.

And here is a view of the octagonal chapter house.

We were not allowed to enter the cathedral that day, as a special service for the first aid charity, St John Ambulance, was being held.

There were four medieval stone figures in the cathedral grounds, but I'm not sure who or what this one represents. 

The Bishop's Palace has a wall and moat surrounding it.

Also near the cathedral is a row of almshouses, dating from the 15th century. Almshouses were built to help those who had fallen on hard times through no fault of their own, and many surviving almshouses still provide subsidised residential accommodation for the poor in the community. The almshouses are in Vicars' Close — one the oldest inhabited streets in Europe — and the photo shows part of the gatehouse stairway . . . 

. . . which has these amazing wooden bosses on one of the ceiling vaults.