From the outset your Blog has been about London as much as about the art and events that you encounter there. But within London, there is another London, a kind of ur London, known as The City of London, and its ‘Corporation.’ The heart of this city within the city and its power is The Guildhall, where it conducts its meetings and thus administrates the streets and properties of the so-called ‘Square Mile’ as well as numerous properties and responsibilities that lay beyond its immediate remit. In many ways, this is the original city, the location of the first settlements, the Roman settlement; the beginnings of London as an economic centre, which it remains. The City of London has its own Mayor, the Lord Mayor of London, as well as an entire, separate and relatively autonomous government, including civic amenities and services, police force, livery and insignia etc. Inside the historic Guildall you can see the livery of the commercial guilds that founded the city’s wealth, along with more modern manifestations of the same. In your recent Blog post on ‘Raven Row’, you ended by suggesting you would like to elaborate on the idea of ‘post-milieu’ art. What you meant by this was also related to your recent publications ‘Against Judgement’, i.e. searching for ways to negotiate a response to art that exposes the hidden partiality, cliques, and cults of art world valuation, in search of a more open, ‘accurate’ or ‘authentic’, perhaps honest and personal response. One way of approaching this might be to steer directly into your prejudices and avoid what is comfortably seen as cool, thereby evading judgements which, you suspect, are really part of a milieu-building consensus (from which you might be afraid to stand out.) Frederic (Lord) Leighton (above) James Tissot (above) But what can all this possibly have to do with the City of London? Well, The corporation has its own art gallery at the Guildhall and, while it does try to update its collections (there is an ironic Mark Titchner slogan here), it might be fair to say that is most notable for the conservatism of its taste. But the very fact that it is so rarely visited and discussed makes it an object of interest for you, given the aforementioned interest in judgement, contemporary, cool, cliques, critiques and cults referred to above. Here at Guildhall you will find mostly ‘Victorian’ paintings, many related to the City itself, but including Pre-Raphaelites, morbid morality tales, cute proto-Christmas card paintings, sentimental depictions of a privileged class (e.g. Tissot, whose star, I am told, is rising in conservative art circles), heavy-laden history painting and ethereal academicism (Lord Leighton), and you will even find the elusive statue of that 1980s champion of ‘Victorian values’ Margaret Thatcher (of which more later.) Marianne Stokes (above)
Matthew Smith (above) But with your taste and prejudice held as much as possible in abeyance you can nevertheless enjoy finding within the Guildhall collection several pleasant surprises and discoveries too. The gallery snapped-up an enormous Matthew Smith bequest before Tate Britain could do so, and so several of his paintings are on view here, providing rare evidence a British painter who vied successfully with the achievements of modern French painters like that of Bonnard and Matisse. Among some heavily stylized Victorian images of the ‘lower classes’ at work, a painting by Marianne Stookes jumps out as something possessing an unusually haunting quality, a certain luminosity and an original approach to communicating space. Then a painting by Frank Brangwynne reveals him to be a real painter’s painter. Just exploring the confidence of his descriptive structures and his lavish enthusiasm for painterly techniques makes you feel you are being educated by an enthusiastic master, even if his subject matter seems less than remarkable. And there are several other unusual delights to be had, including a 60s image of the interior of the Stock Exchange that offers a dynamic array of animated black suits, as well as a wonderful, strangely composed and represented scene showing the laying of a foundation stone by an artist listed only as ‘Unknown’ and whose idiosyncratic, curious and naive approach to representation seems to mark them out as member of the growing ‘outsider art’ fraternity.
Frank Brangwynne (above) Having enjoyed the chance to tour a London art collection in relative peace and quiet (you say to the receptionist “It’s quiet today” but she disagrees, saying “Oh no, we’ve had nearly two hundred in!”) you then make a special request to see the infamous Thatcher statue. It was decapitated by a protestor just two months after it was first unveiled and has now been moved to a part of the gallery where the general public do not encounter it, though you might if you are attending a special function. The generous curators do you the honour and soon you are standing before an ‘Iron lady’ reborn in ghostly white Carara marble and slightly larger than lifesize. She wears a full- or Victorian-length skirt under a trim marble jacket, clutching her famous marble handbag and some papers which, given her attire, make you think she must have been attending a Presbyterian church service when the artist captured this pose. Behind her is a little marble glass of whiskey, apparently an important enough factor in her life and persona to be incorporated into this timeless tribute. Thatcher is, of course, a great hero of the city, the very one who, inspired by Neoconservative values (supposed first tried by the CIA-supported dictatorial regime in 70s Chile) deregulated its powers, thus leading to its exponential boom, then digitization, and ultimately its utterly corrupt crash with all it entails for the society it was supposed to so generously serve. Perhaps economics is the heart of this city, or of every city, but looking at the morbid image of this infamously heartless politician you can’t help thinking how much more to life and how much more to any city there is than money. However, in the very basement of the Guildhall, timely excavations during the 1980s revealed remains of a Roman ampitheatre where the main entertainment apparently consisted of watching criminals and slaves enduring mass execution. You can’t help thinking of the significance of this bloodthirsty sport today as you leave the Guildhall and re-enter the sunny May-time streets of the City of London, the heart of the heart of an old England in which the sacrifice of victims and the emotion of schadenfreude still seem to serve a significant purpose, and might just still be the order of the day.