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.