Saturday 25 April 2015

Picture Post 42 - Boris Anrep's mosaics at the National Gallery

It's good to look up when strolling through cities as often the  most interesting sights are above street level. When entering London's National Gallery in Trafalger Square you should do the opposite and look down. Every day thousands of visitors walk across some of London's most beautiful mosaics - the work of Russian emigree Boris Vasilyevich Anrep, born in St. Petersburg in 1883 and who arrived in the United Kingdom in 1910.

The National Gallery commissioned Anrep to produce and lay two mosaic floors in the vestibule of its main hall based on the themes The Labours of Life and The Pleasures of Life. He completed this task between 1928 and 1933. The Gallery must have liked the results as in 1952, he was commissioned to produce a third mosaic entitled The Modern Virtues.  

Anrep was associated with the Bloomsbury Group and a number of its members appear as characters in his work as did a number of other prominent people of the time. Examples of this include Winston Churchill as Defiance and Great Garbo is the muse Melopeme, whilst in the pictures featured here, we can see ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn as Delectation, poet Edith Sitwell as the Sixth Sense and my favourite astronomer Fred Hoyle as Pursuit. I particularly like Pursuit with its image of a young Hoyle, climbing his way up towards the stars, wearing glasses that would make him extremely fashionable today and carrying what looks a little like a laptop! Anrep was clearly forward thinking.

Originally studying to be a lawyer, he abandoned this for art and studied in Paris before enrolling at the Glasgow School of Art for the year 1910-11. He met British artist Augustus John whilst in Paris and soon  became familiar with other British artists including Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. His Russian background also helped open doors for him in London and in 1912 he was asked to take charge of the Russian section in Roger Fry's second post-impressionist exhibition. Exhibitors in this section included Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov and Nicholas Roerich. He also maintained a life long friendship with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Akhmatova is the subject of the current exhibition at London's Pushkin House, part of which examines her links with Anrep.

It is possible to see more of Anrep's work in London by visiting Westminster Cathedral in Victoria where he designed the mosaics in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel or Saint Sophia's Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Bayswater. He also completed commissions at the Church of Christ the King in Mullingar, Ireland. Its free to see the mosaics in the National Gallery, but remember to look down!

Saturday 18 April 2015

Ella Leya - The Orphan Sky, a brilliant first novel

One of the hits of this year's Jewish book week, Ella Leya is an accomplished musician playing both jazz and classical music. The Orphan Sky is an excellent first novel capturing the complicated manoeuvrings of life in the final decade of the Soviet Union through the experiences of Leila Badalbeili, a talented young pianist from Baku, Azerbaijan.

The book captures the atmosphere of Baku's old city with its narrow lanes, sites and smells, and most of all its iconic Maiden Tower. The Tower is the source of many stories, some of which overlap with Leila's own experiences as she navigates her way through her teenage years, discovering art, music and even love - much of which is forbidden during the Soviet period in which the story is set. 

Leila is a committed member of the Komsomol, the Communist youth organisation, but becomes disillusioned after meeting Tahir, a young man from the once prominent Mukhtarov family who introduces her to a world beyond that permitted by the authorities. Gradually, she begins to see and understand the deceit, corruption and hypocrisy inherent in the Soviet regime with party officials lining their own pockets whilst others live in poverty. This extends all the way to her beloved father, who moves in the upper levels of Soviet Azeri society, and who she realises is not above receiving bribes in return for favours. Her awareness of how deceitful those in authority are grows until she discovers her father's ultimate betrayal, which I won't reveal here (!), but which results in a series of catastrophic events leading all the way to the final denouement and a kind of deliverance.

The Orphan Sky has a wonderful cast of characters. Our heroine Leila wins our support, respect and sympathy but, happily, is no angel herself, making mistakes and compromises as she struggles between the urge to survive and the desire not to compromise herself. Her best friend Almaz is both survivor and victim whilst Sonia, her mother, is a brilliant surgeon but turns a blind eye to her husband's indiscretions even when they come very close to home. I especially liked her music teacher, Professor Sultan-zade, initially drawn as a cold, stern character but who is developed through the course of the story as considered, capable and eminently human and who also has emotions. The female characters demonstrate very clearly the position of many women in Soviet society who had to live up to the requirements of both the regime and more traditional roles assigned to women in some cultures and communities. 

I visited Azerbaijan in 2012 and The Orphan Sky took me back there, especially to Icheri Sheher, the old city of Baku. Indeed, it made me want to visit again. Ella Leya's love for music is displayed throughout the book, through her descriptions of Leila's performances, immersing the reader in emotional journeys through pieces by Mozart and Rachmaninov using references to art, the elements and to the music of Billie Holiday in order to convey her feelings. This is no surprise given her own jazz background and that rhere is a bit of a jazz tradition in Azerbaijan.  During the Soviet period it was seen as the music of dissent. The great Azerbaijani jazz pianist Vagif Mustafazade who suffered at the hands of the Soviet regime is now revered and his former home is a museum. The book also contains many references to traditional Azeri poems and lyrics and to the traditional Azeri mugham form of music. 

Ella Leya was born in Baku and received asylum in the United States in 1990. She lives between Laguna beach in california and London-  where she is the wife of a rabbi! You can find out more about her music here.

Wednesday 15 April 2015

Picture post 41 - Middlesbrough's Iconic Transporter Bridge

Middlesbrough's transporter bridge is one of just three of its kind remaining in the UK and is both a much loved iconic image of the town and a reminder of the area's industrial past.  

The idea for a bridge was first mooted in 1872 by one Charles Smith, manager of the Hartlepool Iron Works, who suggested a scheme to Middlesbrough Corporation. His idea was rejected and it was not until 1911 that the bridge was built as a result of an Act of Parliament passed in 1907. It cost 68,026 pounds, six shillings and eight pence to build which translates to about 6,300,000 pounds today. Construction was completed by Sir William Arrol and Co. of Glasgow using steel made by local company Dorman Long (forerunners of British Steel) and replaced ferry services across the river. Local labour employed at Dorman Long also produced the steel used to construct the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The foundation stones were laid by Mayor of Middlesbrough Thomas Gibson-Poole and Alderman Joseph McLauchlan, whilst the towns citizens turned out in huge numbers to welcome Prince Albert of Connaught on 17th October 1911 when he came to open the bridge.

The bridge is 851 feet long - the longest remaining transporter bridge in the world. The cantilever construction has three main bridge parts and a gondola which runs on a wheel and rail system 160 feet above the Tees. The transporter has seen some drama over the years. It was hit by a bomb in the Second World War, whilst in 1953, the gondola became stuck half way across and was lashed by gale force winds that brought the river to within inches of the platform. It has also featured in films and TV series including Billy Elliot and the Boys from the Backstuff, whilst scenes of its apparent dismantling and transportation to Arizona during Auf Wiedersehen Pet resulted in calls from worried citizens  to the Council, protesting the seeming loss. The TV company had to include a clarification at the end of the series that the scenes were purely fictional! A real drama occurred in 1974 when actor Terry Scott thought he was crossing a toll bridge and drove off the edge, landing in the safety netting below - and I just about remember this from the local newspaper - the Evening Gazette

The bridge straddles the river Tees between the former St. Hilda's area of Middlesbrough and Port Clarence on the Stockton-on-Tees side of the river. St. Hilda's was home to a range of industries connected to the docks as well as to a residential community. Almost all of both are now gone, cleared by the demolition ball over a number of years with only a few exceptions -  two pubs (one derelict), the old dock clock and the former town hall, the latter of which was famously painted by L.S. Lowry in 1959. Referred to as "over the border" due to being on the riverside of the railway line, St. Hilda's had a reputation for being a bit scary during my younger days as well as being a bit risqué due to the (possibly assumed) activities that took place in some of the pubs! 

The area has been renamed "Middlehaven" and is now home to part of the town's university campus, it's college and Middlesbrough FC's stadium. There are also plans to redevelop the area with housing, shops and cafes, re-connecting the town to the river and bringing new life to this historic area. I like the idea of bringing it back to life - but its a shame that so much of what was there before has gone. The transporter bridge was given grade II* listed status in 1983, protecting it from a similar fate, but its real protection comes from its continued use and more importantly from the attachment that locals continue to feel for this example of engineering ingenuity.

The transporter bridge seen through the remaining wall of the former salt works.
You might also like Picture Post 28 - Middlesbrough Empire Palace of Varieties and Memories of Middlesbrough and days long gone