Tuesday, 2 November 2010

A new obsession

I have been furthering my researches into Modernism, and in particular its development and influence on landscape and garden design.  The casual reader doesn't have to probe the key texts of the twentieth century too far to unearth the name of Daniel Urban Kiley, and I am increasingly intrigued by this unassuming giant of the American landscape tradition and his work, domestic, public and commercial.  In February, in Chicago, I was unable to do more than peer at his prize-winning courtyard outside the Chicago Art Institute on Michigan Avenue, it being closed for the winter, so missed a chance to immerse myself in one of his singular creations. 
What is so appealing?  What, if anything, do these spaces mean? 
As to the latter, American scholarship and its assiduous examination of the American experience has much to say on the matter - even though Kiley himself was a reluctant lecturer and avoided the pressure to intellectualise his work.  Suffice to say that, in the early days, his landscapes used elements of design vocabulary in purely functional terms - the beauty followed from their fitness for purpose and the implied social good that they stood for.  In his mature works, starting with the Miller Garden in Columbus, Indiana, the elements of his work began to describe a more aesthetic approach - still rigorously functional in true Modernist fashion, but equally classical in their use of trees and other plant material to define space on a controlled topography, often carefully modified to suit the design.  It is no surprise to learn of Kiley's early exposure to the great formal gardens of Andre le Notre in France.
With regard to the former, the appeal has to lie in the management of space, by careful integration of masses, volumes, voids and edges:  large scale works that carve up the sky with allees of trees, bosquets and orchards, that offer seclusion and drama while redefining the relationships within the site, that expose and screen the wider view in turn and which create truly special places, alive with varied light.
I feel the need to plant some trees...

Paul Ridley Design
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Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Images now available for sale!

If you enjoy my images, they can now be yours in the form of cards, prints, posters and canvases by visiting Redbubble and searching for 'paulridley'. You will find a gallery of flower images and others, regularly updated.
I hope you like the images on offer - bookmark the site and revisit occasionally to see new work.

Paul Ridley Design

Monday, 12 July 2010

Miquel Barcelo in Avignon

A fortnight resting up in the buzzy city of Avignon in southern France coincided with the start of the annual three week festival.  There are hundreds of theatre, music and dance productions to see, and exhibitions all over the city in the dozens of historic buildings that dot the streets and squares.
In the greatest of these, the Palais des Papes - built in the early fifteenth century for the Papacy during its seventy year break from Rome - the sculptor Miquel Barcelo has installed a thought-provoking series of sculptures, that subtly interact with the surrounding architecture.
Great sheets of pocked plaster lean against the ancient stonework, clay fish masks adorn ecclesiastical statuary, grim zoomorphic heads roughly carved from wet bricks leer down from the walls.  If this all sounds a bit overheated, it should be said that the Palace itself is a pretty forbidding building - massively constructed, as much fortress, strong-room and prison as palace, it is largely unadorned and undecorated - you get the raw bones of papal power here, with none of the luxuries. 
The sculpture is accordingly well-suited to the spaces, and the juxtapositions of some of the pieces with their surroundings can be easily overlooked.
If you are in southern France during the Avignon Festival I'd recommend a detour to see this, and the wonderful production of 'Spartacus' by the Theatre de la Licorne, in the hills of Villeneuve les Avignon across the Rhone.  There are also hordes of street performers to watch while eating the seriously good chocolate orange ice cream from the shop on the corner of Place de l'Horloge...

Monday, 14 June 2010

Henry Moore

The Henry Moore retrospective has much to offer the designer - in whatever field.  The pieces on show are relatively small - or, at least, were intended for indoor display.  There are none of the huge bronzes typically used in public spaces - the majority of pieces in the catalogue are carvings, in wood or stone, with a few casts in bronze, lead and concrete.
As a survey of Moore's themes and preoccupations, the exhibition naturally focuses on the human figure and especially on the Mother and Child motif that occupied such a central position in the work of this, one of the greatest sculptors of the twentieth century.
From the early years are a strikingly beautiful half-length figure with upraised arms and a shocking depiction of a suckling infant - latched on to a disembodied breast, the child seems to be in nothing less than a blind parasitic frenzy - the absence of the mother, beyond the breast, seemingly indicating the priorities of the young child at that particular moment, its focus entirely on feeding.  The great reclining figure in Hornton Stone, above, from 1929 clearly shows Moore's debt to the strength and massing of, especially, pre-Columbian art of South America - sculpture that was to have a lifelong influence on him from his first glimpse of the reclining Chac-mool in the British Museum.
The final room is devoted to the huge limewood carvings of reclining figures that Moore created over several decades - through them we can trace the increasing abstraction of the human (and, specifically, female) form as well as follow the changes in Moore's style overall.  Some of these are more successful than others, with one piece from the middle of his career perhaps making too free with the notion of voids piercing the body - as one visitor muttered, within earshot, 'too many holes...'.  The greatest though, are extraordinary essays in spatial arrangement, with fluid strength and a deep emotional charge.
It is the playing with space which is such an inspiration for designers - moving around these sculptures you are exposed to a changing landscape of caves, undulations, tunnels and waves.  The eye is led over and through the work, the rhythm exploited then suddenly halted by a change in texture or a sharp edge amongst all the organic softness.  These sculptures are object lessons in arranging a journey for the eye and as such are invaluable for those who are engaged in just this work, no matter what the particular field they work in.
The exhibition closes in August.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Objects of Desire 3

Leather bench
Strange where inspiration for designs crops up - this is the second time I have been moved to photograph seating in an airport or station, in this case in the new terminal at Toulouse airport on the way home from a very relaxed Easter break with friends.  I can easily see this shape, or something like it, appearing in a garden design soon.  I love the sinuous curves, the narrow blunted ends, the shallow taper towards the floor and, in this case, the gently ogival form. 
There were others - worm-like, kidney-shaped, amoebic - but this one caught my eye especially.  There is something of the sickle or the adze in its shape, and something too of the curves of ancient Cycladic sculpture.
There were plenty of great design details at the airport - squiggly metallic lines on glass screening, smooth cast concrete walls and beautifully finished timber screening that looked, at first glance, like random temporary cladding attached to the windows during construction, but which had a coloured glass joint at every intersection.  The benches were the stars though - all highly desirable...

Friday, 26 March 2010

Travelling Companion

It would be hard to conceive of a life more varied or punctuated with the eventful than that of the doyenne of travel writers, Jan Morris.

At her talk for the Oxford Literary Festival yesterday Morris decried the term, however, stating that she hated to be called such. And indeed the body of work which she has created is highly varied, although much of it is necessarily infused with her knowledge of and enthusiasm for the places and people of the wider world, knowledge gained in a lifetime of professional travelling.

She is one of my favourite writers. Deeply humane and seemingly based on Chesterton’s dictum that the three most important things are to be kind, to be kind and to be kind, the writing has for me an elegiac tenor, a barely-apparent regret. This quality is present in all her work, and I have tried in vain to locate the source. The nearest I have come is to conclude that, so all-encompassing is her interest in and passion for the people she meets, places she visits, that she longs to be able to hold all of them in view and mind at once. The regret creeps in as a result of the inability to do this.

And what things to keep in mind. As James, Morris was the Times’ correspondent accompanying the Hillary/Tenzing ascent of Everest. By subterfuge he was able to break the story on the morning of Elizabeth II’s coronation – the Times gave the stories equal billing on the front page and Morris’ name was made.

A prolonged sojourn in Venice led to the book of that title, 50 years old this year, which established Morris’ reputation for getting under the skin of a place, a reputation that has been justified in books on Manhattan, Spain and Oxford itself, among many others.

The key work of the 1970s was the trilogy Pax Britannica, an examination of the British Empire during the phases of its development, zenith and senescence. During the writing of this Morris made the most dramatic journey of her life, undergoing hormone treatment and finally surgery in Morocco in order to say farewell to the James she had been born as and emerge as Jan, the woman she had known she ought to be since a moment of blinding revelation as a small child, sitting beneath the piano at home. This most momentous transformation was shared in a sane and touching account, Conundrum.

Countless articles, and many further books later, Morris was moved to write Last Letters from Hav, a spirited account of the geography, traditions and people of the state of Hav. All completely fictitious, it was followed by Hav of the Myrmidons, describing the changes wrought on this quixotic society by the Myrmidonic revolution documented in the first book.

The most valedictory of all her books is, however, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. A late work, it takes leave of travel writing and beautifully describes this half-way city, its tangled history and mingled people. The city seems almost a metaphor for Morris herself – subject to transformation, mercurial, with a rich and salty past.

Born in 1926, Morris is now an elderly woman, yet to hear her talk about some of the individuals she has encountered in a long life filled with incident was to witness someone with an undimmed delight in the folly, humour, variety and, yes, kindness exhibited by people the world over.


Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Making an exhibition...

I have put on small exhibitions of my collograph prints in the past, and have a few images on show in Oxford at present, but it never fails to amaze me how much time it takes to mount even a small exhibition of work.  Something that instinct tells you ought to be a quick, simple job becomes a huge tangle of things to resolve, all of which need to be achieved well before the show is due to go on.  Decisions on which work to exhibit were taken a while ago, for instance, but have been revised in the last week following my trip to the US and some new images that I really wanted to include.  The printing is in hand as of today, but then there is the question of framing to sort out, followed by the hanging, labelling, pricing...and this long after the publicity was organised and put to bed. 
With two exhibitions in May, of about 45 images in total, there is going to be plenty to keep me busy this spring - look out for further details in the next few weeks.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010


Living in Oxford, I'm used to the antique, the restrained, the polite view.  It's what we do.  But there are times when it is a huge relief to just wallow in the modern, the unrestrained and unapologetically arrogant environment that man can create for himself when the kid-gloves are off.  This is why a trip to a big city in the US is always a thrill, and can always be relied on to dazzle with a constant parade of eye-catching design - whole buildings, plazas, malls, skylines and smaller fragments, as here.  Sometimes the juxtapositions are deliberate, more often they are unintended, but for those with eyes to see there are magnificent compositions at every turn.   The severely rectilinear habitat we create for ourselves in these places simply acts as a foil for any organic form, and the shivering images all around animate the environment far more than we imagine.  There is almost as much trembling movement from reflections in the glass curtain walls as we pass between them as there is under trees in a woodland, and perhaps it is this quality that enables us to survive in such unnatural surroundings, otherwise largely divorced from the soothing effects of contact with nature.
I loved the looping shape and vibrant colour of this Alexander Calder 'stabile' in the centre of Chicago - but what makes the picture for me is the corresponding square of red in the reflection from the neighbouring building.  A piece of red paper in the window opposite that completes my composition - although I was unaware of it at the time.

Monday, 15 February 2010


Interesting, the way in which new technology or tools can change the way we do things.  I have posted this photo, in a colour version, elsewhere, but the version above is one that I have earmarked for a future exhibition.  I have started taking photographs with a proper macro lens, and this wintersweet flower was an early favourite of the images I have so far taken.  The lens has made a huge difference to how I view the plant world, and is capable of delivering the shallow depth of field that fascinates and intrigues me.  I'm really excited by the prospects for future photographs
The other new departure is the use of a software package which is also changing the images I create.  I have always been a fan of monochrome photographs, and am enjoying using Silver Efex Pro to tone images in the manner of all sorts of film types, photographic styles and papers.  Purists will wail, but I relish being able to compare the results of several film types and tonings before deciding which suits the image best.
So, with new hardware and software, a whole new field of image-making opens up...look out for the results on a blog near you soon!

Monday, 8 February 2010

Objects of Desire 2

Beechwood Lemon Juicer
This is one of my favourite kitchen utensils, the pleasure in using it derived from the beauty of the object, which is entirely due to its function.  There are other juicers out there, but as soon as I saw this I knew I had to have it, and its predecessor was duly filed away in the ever-growing box of objects kept for that distant and probably mythical day when we have a holiday home to furnish.
It seems such a minor thing, but this implement shows that even the humblest object has the potential for great beauty if its functionality comes first.  Here, everything is gauged to work - the tip is sharp, as are the ridges for squeezing the pulp.  The head is broad, preventing the need to wiggle the juicer around in the lemon, but the most aesthetically attractive part of it is the collar, where the ridges meet the handle.  Beautifully sculptural, it gives the whole object an organic presence - there are echoes of seeds, pollen grains, plankton, in its form.  It's no surprise that it was made in Italy...

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

A quotation...

'The thing that's important to know is that you never know. You're always sort of feeling your way.' 
Diane Arbus

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Objects of Desire 1

Celadon Bowl by David Leach
As a collector of modern studio ceramics this bowl is a powerfully realised piece.
Its maker, David Leach, died in 2005 at the age of 93 after a lifetime's work in the teaching and making of studio ceramics.  David was born in Japan in 1911 during the time that his illustrious father, Bernard Leach, was assimilating the techniques and philosophy of handmade ceramics that would see him acknowledged as the founder of the 20th century studio ceramics movement in Britain.
This pot, from David's later years, is a wonderful demonstration of the skills of throwing, carving and glazing that have rendered these fluted bowls iconic emblems of 20th century craft.  The porcelain body, of a mix of clay developed by David and widely adopted, is faceted with narrow flutes, the exposed edges speckled rusty red in parts, possibly where rust from the knife has smeared the damp clay and then reacted with the overlying glaze.  The relationship between the angle of the foot, the dimensions of the fluting and the overall size of the piece are finely judged. The care with which these relationships are expressed demonstrates the immense control brought to bear in the creation of the piece, and speak of a lifetime's achievement in absorbing the skills and design awareness necessary.
This is not, though, a demonstrative pot - it has a simple purity, an unshowy 'right-ness' that reflects the reticence and humility of its maker and gives it a quiet presence, despite its size.  As an object it has much to teach us about the value of skill and that much abused concept, craft.

Monday, 25 January 2010

The S Word

It's a big no-no in some design circles - it reeks of complacency, prestige, dullness. It is safe, unimaginative, old-fashioned, comfortably bourgeois. Symmetry. And yet...we like it.
In nature, symmetry is found on a small scale - individual organisms are often symmetrical (see the dragonfly above) and their symmetry is a vital factor in genetic success; many studies show that, in the animal kingdom, individuals with a greater degree of symmetry are more successful in passing on their genes - they are more appealing to potential sexual partners and so have a greater opportunity to breed. This is even true on a subliminal level in humans. However, increase the scale to anything above the level of the individual and symmetry in nature pretty much disappears - there are far too many factors at play in a woodland, lake or mountain range to permit such refinement, and the effects of weather, accident, uneven erosion all contribute to the geometrically chaotic result.
It is only in the human environment of architecture, planned settlements, gardens and managed landscapes that symmetry and order are evident on any large scale.
I think symmetry appeals to us, at least in the Western aesthetic, because it denotes control and order - it speaks to the deep instinct we all have to create order in our environment, and is a very visual demonstration of that ability.  We keep the chaos of nature at bay, safely tamed and toothless, by channelling it into forms that simply do not exist in the wilderness.  The creation of symmetry in our environment reassures us that we are safe from the wild wood, and its use as a device in our gardens stems from a specifically Western philosophy of the world, developed down the centuries and encompassing great thinkers from Aristotle to Descartes and beyond.
Of course the greater your ability to control, the greater the extent of your symmetrical interventions in the landscape.  The favoured method for shahs, emperors, kings and caliphs to demonstrate their power has been to render vast tracts of land into managed landscapes, symmetrically ordered around their palaces and pavilions - the greater and more absolute the power, the more gigantic the scale of the works.  At Versailles, for instance, the final extravagances of the French kings dominated the countryside for miles around the palace, with great avenues carved into the native forest to extend the sightlines from the terraces and windows of the buildings.  The message was clear - the world revolved around the Sun King; he was the gravitational centre of the country and all lines led to his person. 
These huge estates and landscapes send two messages - nature is subjugated, but so also are the people.  All of these greatest gardens (settings to glorify, in most instances, powerful individuals) were created by the labour of numberless and nameless workers or slaves, pressed into service willingly or otherwise.
Very few of us now have the resources to command these forces, or indeed the acreage on which to deploy them, but we can all still enjoy the calm and sense of order that symmetrical spaces bestow.  Symmetry works its effect on the smallest scale, and in these straitened times, with uncertainty at every corner, I would not be surprised to see a return to its wider use on a domestic scale.  Sometimes the safe, the reassuring, the old-fashioned is what people crave, and if that comes at the price of a new pair of clipped yews either side of the front door then it seems little enough to pay.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Adventures in macro

I started taking photographs seriously again in mid-2008, and my involvement rapidly increased in February 2009 when I bought myself a brilliant DSLR (a Nikon D700 for those who are interested).  With a standard 50mm prime lens and a zoom lens I was managing to get close to the sorts of photographs I love - but not quite close enough.
Last week I took delivery of a new macro lens, and I can see already, after only two or three outings, that it is going to transform my image-making.  I love the shallow depth of field and the impact of the close-up view - the structure of plants is fascinating, and now I can get into close-combat with the veining, patterning and texture of leaves, flowers and, in this case, seedheads I can see that I'll have to force myself to take photographs of anything else!
One of the unforeseen pitfalls is that at this scale almost everything is of note - this doesn't mean that everything is picture-worthy, but you can spend a long time looking at the minutiae of things before deciding what you want to photograph.  It's a big world when you see it through a macro lens, and if you can only see it one minute fragment at a time, you could spend lifetimes in the most unpromising settings looking at the beauty of things in miniature.
So, here's to continued adventures in macro - I hope that you enjoy the work...

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Did I write that?

I love this way of displaying the content of text - a quick glance shows the relative frequency of the words in this blog, and I have to say the emphasis is a pretty accurate reflection of my concerns! I'll re-do the exercise at regular intervals to see how the content changes...
Try it for yourself at Wordle.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Hallowed Ground

Oxford Botanic Garden is the oldest such in Great Britain, founded in 1621.  Following a bequest of £5000 by Sir Henry Danvers the garden was set out on land between Magdalen Bridge and the River Cherwell that had in part been the Jewish Cemetery until 1290 when Jews were banished from England. The grand gates and walls were established by 1633, and cost so much that there was very little spare to spend on plants to stock the garden.  Danvers, the Earl of Danby,  is commemorated in the magnificent pedimented gateway at the entrance to the garden off High Street.  The original mission of the garden, as a teaching and research resource, continues to this day, with the role of the Keeper also occupying a central role in the teaching of Botany at the University.
With the existing built framework more or less unchanged, there have been periodic changes to the layout of the garden within this structure, reflecting the scientific understanding of the plant world at the time.  The walled garden currently combines areas of taxonomic order with more aesthetic plantings beyond in which ideas for the creative use of garden plants are explored.
The garden has been a quietly ordered space at the heart of the city for 380 years, and continues as a source of inspiration - the ending of Philip Pullman's recent His Dark Materials trilogy is set here, with Pantalaimon scampering in the branches of the great Pinus nigra in the old walled garden, Lyra and Will agreeing to sit on the bench in their respective worlds on Midsummer's Day.  This same tree was a favourite of JRR Tolkien, and stands by the ivied walls that Evelyn Waugh's Sebastian Flyte so admired in Brideshead Revisited.
I am fortunate to live a short walk from the garden and visit frequently, to check on the progress of favourite plants, enjoy the changing seasons and capture the atmosphere at different times of year.  The image above was taken on the coldest day of 2009, when the garden was empty of all other visitors and I had this magical place to myself for an hour.