Where Communism and Commercialism Collide: Beijing’s 798 Art District and Shanghai’s M50, by AHA alum Helena Roy

China’s art is exciting – it really is. Extremely simplistically, the PRC’s art history can be divided by pre- and post-Mao’s rule. What little art there was in between was either so corrupted it is purely propaganda, or was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. This makes modern Chinese art one of the few windows into their confusing, contradictory and colourful political system.

Graffiti in the 798 Art District, Beijing

Modern art in China comprises expressions formed by political, economic and cultural combustion. In the 798 Art District in Beijing, and M50 in Shanghai, China’s revived interest in nudging at societal boundaries have bred edgy art scenes. With many relics decimated during the Cultural Revolution, the low rent and spacious rooms in the disused factories of mutating cities gave artists a unique and low-cost way of creating a Chinese artistic history.

The 798 Art District in Beijing
Graffiti in M50, Shanghai

Closeted amongst decommissioned military factories built by the East Germans during the Maoist heyday of the 1950s, the 798 Art District in Beijing is a thriving microcosm of artists’ studios, boutiques and independent cafés. ‘Saw-tooth’ roof design, high ceilings, north-facing windows and right-angles give each building a distinctly utilitarian feel. Communist slogans paint the walls in fading red letters. Quietly riveting exhibitions confront depictions of the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward and China’s “great leader”, with established or fresh mainland artists pushing forth ardent political messages from minimalist gallery walls.

A statue in the 798 Art District

Once the Chunming Slub Mill, and now the nerve centre of Shanghai’s art scene, M50 is a similar complex, with galleries and noodle bars stuffed into every crevice of a disused cotton factory. Satirical undertones pervade the air: the Maoist personality cult haunts modern China, which now paints Little-Red-Book-waving PLA soldiers with dummies in their mouths.

ShaghART gallery and streets in M50
Political art depicting a PLA soldier in M50, Shanghai

But no matter how exciting the art may be – no matter how many times it embellishes China’s rigid daily politics with under-the-surface views – it is neither Communism nor political repression that mars the 798 Art District or M50. Neither escapes the rampant, almost religious commercialism that paints nearly every street in the Chinese metropolises. Wandering the manicured boulevards, you enter a bubble of Sino-Europe. At Café – a wild café with bombed-out brick walls in Beijing – serves spaghetti bolognese and tuna niçoise. Illy Coffee signs jump out between every gallery, offering respite to tourists, and a chance to imitate the West. Previously an oasis of individualism, born by the low-cost nature of the shabby setting, both complexes have become playgrounds for people who want street-stall souvenirs to be sold in Scandinavian-style shops.

Perhaps this is utterly inevitable as China strides confidently forward into the world economy, squeezing every drip of GDP it can from its culture. But in doing so, the subtle political dissent the galleries quietly put forward is overrun by capitalisation of what attracts tourists to the art districts – shopping for mass produced Communist memorabilia and homesickness for good coffee.

The 798 Art District and M50 are triple-tiered exhibition fields. On one level, China’s socio-industrial history creates a backdrop to modern Chinese art where the forgone creativity of the late 19th century should have been. On the second level, the cultural aspirations of modern China offer timid satire of China’s political system. In reality, however, a third level of crazed commercialism drips over both, clouding what modern Chinese art is really for.

Abroad, Chinese government officials often justify their regime by putting the economic enfranchisement of millions on a pedestal. If everyone’s getting rich, who needs more than one political party? It is certainly ironic, but possibly even intentional, that the Chinese commercialism post-Mao Zedong has almost become a new form of political repression.

All photographs by Helena Roy.

Pick of the week: a mini guide to London’s artistic eateries – by Helena Roy

Food and art have a long and illustrious history (think Caravaggio’s ‘The Supper at Emmaus’, or Van Gogh’s ‘Apples’ or ‘Crabs’) – and ever more cafés, restaurants and bars are adding to that tradition in London. A recent post detailed the artistic work of Taylor St Baristas – not a gallery, but a coffee shop.

Van Gogh's 'Apples' (c. 1885)

Though I have yet to find an Italian example (I’m at a loss as to why given a) my obsession with pasta and b) the Italian love of art – any suggestions would be greatly appreciated), one discovery led to another, and thus here are a couple more artistic eateries in London…

Koshari Street

Koshari is a delicious and speedy traditional Egyptian street food: a hearty combination of lentils, rice and pasta topped with a spicy tomato sauce and garnished with caramelised onion, boiled chickpeas, dried herbs and nuts. Koshari Street is a new restaurant (read: cramped but cosy alley that bursts onto the street) serving the dish from St Martin’s Lane, just off Trafalgar Square.

Inside you’ll find the stark black and white street art from Egyptian artist Samir M. Zoghby. A self-taught artist, Zoghby works with a modest felt pen and acrylics. Born in Egypt, he completed his education in the USA and served with the US Government. Zoghby says, ‘my work conveys no message but simply looks at the world through the changing prism of earthy humour.’ His signature is all clear lines, blank monochrome and traditional forms; a nadf style mostly influences by his Arab and Czech roots, and experiences in Africa and America. He has designed stamps for UNICEF and the World Food Program.

Koshari Street and the work of Samir M Zoghby


A slice of Bombay in London, Dishoom is a tribute to the old Bombay cafés – or Irani cafés – a tradition which Dishoom believes has been ‘lost in the frantic rush of progress’. A myriad of hot spiced, salty and sweet tastes, Dishoom offers Indian cuisine with a twist. Dishes are moderate in size but big in zest: packed to the brim with a heady mix of flavours. Their Shoreditch branch is a charming, idiosyncratic blend of warmth and bare decoration.

Dishoom in Shoreditch

Dishoom’s art is of the DIY variety: nostalgically reminiscent of the paint-your-own pottery cafés of childhood. Their plate-wallah is a project whereby customers can note their memories of Irani cafés down online, and the best ones (crazy and unusual anecdotes encouraged) are displayed at Dishoom. The more personal the stories, the better. Umbrella-shaped text on a creamy plate tells stories of discovery on rainy days, while jagged strips of words convey incomprehension after the Mumbai terror attack in November 2008.

Dishoom's Plates


Of course, there are some gorgeous locations for a drink and a nibble in galleries across London. On a Friday evening in the summer, the Royal Academy’s sunlit courtyard is packed with people sipping Pimm’s amongst posters and sculptures. The Tate Modern bar offers a minimalist interior, with spectacular skyline views across the Thames to St Paul’s; as does the National Portrait Gallery’s restaurant over Trafalgar Square.

Food and art are two of the best ways to get to know the soul of a culture. What makes these eateries so unique is not necessarily the food or drink – though it is fantastic. It’s the sense of a different, original atmosphere which brings comfort and escape. The art infinitely contributes to that in telling the cuisine and café’s story. It brings warmth and fullness to the material comfort of sharing a meal.

With thanks to Koshari Street and Dishoom for photos.

Celebrity Art Charades: an AHA tradition in fashion shoots – by Helena Roy

When I did my AHA course in the summer of 2012, an evening activity we were introduced to was (prosecco-fuelled) ‘Art Charades’. The group splits into judges and two teams, and each takes turns re-enacting artistic masterpieces live on the streets of Venice, Florence or Rome (much to the amusement of perplexed locals).

Art Charades on the AHA Northern Italy course 2012

It seems the fashion world has been at it too – albeit on a slightly more professional scale. Artists from Salvador Dali to Barbara Kruger have been invited to direct fashion shoots. Throw celebrities into the mix, and their recreations comprise a hilarious, odd, fantastical and real-life response to visual fictions.

Saoirse Ronan as Sir John Everett Millais' 'Ophelia' (1851-1852) in Vogue December 2011 by Steven Meisel
Modelling Roy Lichtenstein in Zink magazine by Mike Ruiz
Angela Lindvall as Andrew Wyeth's 'Christina's World' (1948), Vogue October 1998 by Carter Smith

A recent cover shoot for US Vogue depicted Jessica Chastain in a series of art-inspired portraits; striking poses from Matisse, to Van Gogh and Klimt. Models have recreated works from Magritte to Vermeer‘Girl with a pearl earring’ is a fashion favourite, having been modelled by Julianne Moore, Katja Borghuis and Scarlett Johannson (to promote her film about the subject).

Vincent Van Gogh painted 'La Mousme' in 1888, here's Jessica Chastain recreating it in 2013
Rene Magritte's 'La Robe Du Soir' 1955 sold at Christie's in London for 1.6mn dollars in February 2010, and has not been available for public view since
On the cover of US Vogue - the inspiration was Frederic Leighton's 'Flaming June' of 1895

Mimicking paintings spreads from photography to live fashion. Marc Jacobs caused quite a stir when he sent ‘sexy nurses’ down the Louis Vuitton catwalk, inspired by Richard Prince’s ‘Nurses’ painting series. Another example would be Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Mondrian’ collection, which became the epitome of Swinging Sixties fashion.

Models present creations by US designer Marc Jacobs based on Richard Prince's 'Nurses'
Yves Saint Laurent's Mondrian Dress at the V&A

Why does fashion take such obvious inspiration from art, when it is meant to be such a source of vision and creativeness itself? Perhaps to borrow some of the power of the art world’s most iconic, beloved and recognisable pieces. Or, perhaps simply for the fun of dress-up and charades…

With thanks to Vogue, W Magazine, Zink Magazine and Wikipedia for photos.

Secession and the City: Portraits in Vienna 1900, by Lucy Speelman

Vienna 1900 – the result of revolution.  As an imperial capital of Austria-Hungary, the city was politically and socially volatile to its core.  It was an avant-garde powerhouse of creativity and radical ideas about taste, aesthetics and multiculturalism.  But just beneath this facade of modernity, the age-old insecurities about social status and national identity still thrived.  Prior to 1900, the city’s liberal climate had attracted immigrants from across the whole Empire, many of whom became successful, wealthy and cultured members of the middle classes.  These citizens were the ‘New Viennese’.  But the liberalism that had drawn them to Vienna was short-lived.

Nationalism, conservatism and anti-Semitism increased with the foundation of the Austrian Christian Social Party under Karl Lueger, who was then elected mayor of Vienna in 1897.  The diversity that previously had been embraced was suddenly rejected, and the newly established middle classes had somehow to prove themselves and defend their position.


'Portrait of an Unidentified Seated Girl in a White Satin Dress', Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, 1839

The New Viennese turned to portraiture, in a city where modern art was flourishing.  The National Gallery’s Facing the Modern exhibition addresses these political twists and turns very effectively.  It illustrates how the ambitious middle classes reacted against anti-liberalism using portraiture and theatricality as tools to assert themselves, and how their social instability resulted in a sense of alienation that permeated their whole world.  The first room, titled ‘The Old Viennese’, highlights the significance of the Miethke Gallery’s 1905 exhibition of portraits from the first half of the 19th century.  These portraits were intended to anchor the present to the past; to identify a lineage between the new and old that would pacify the middle classes’ anxieties about their social standing.  The stylistic traits of the works, based on the Biedermeier tradition, also provide an effective point of comparison for the later Secession works.

'Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl', Gustav Klimt, 1917-18
'Self Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder', Egon Schiele, 1912

The Secessionists took their name from the verb ‘to secede’, meaning ‘to withdraw’.  Like the Impressionists, they rejected the strict values of the academies and embraced the avant-garde, the different and the modern.  The portraits exhibited in this exhibition displayed the vitality and powerful expressivity of the Secessionist painters.  The ‘Big 3’ were represented (Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka) in haunting and stunning works like Klimt’s unfinished Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl and Schiele’s expressive and immediate Self Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder, but there were also some real gems to be found in some of the lesser known artists.  Isidor Kauffman’s Young Rabbi from N. is a poignant statement about what it meant to be Jewish in an anti-Semitic political climate.  This beautiful portrait defends Judaism and its place in Vienna, yet proudly owns its differences.

'Young Rabbi from N.', Isidor Kaufmann, c.1910

The second room reflected the reformed face of domestic values and what constitutes a family portrait; Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality posed serious questions for family life.  The portraits on display here demonstrated a sense of vulnerability, and once again, anxiety.  Schiele’s unsettling work The Family (Self Portrait) from 1918 shows how much family portraits had changed since the work of Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, for example.  Another room focused on the self-portrait and how self-definition was paramount, and another on women artists and their position within the artistic infrastructure.  Broncia Koller’s Nude Portrait of Marietta from 1907 represents a model as both a studio nude and a portrait, and is strikingly beautiful in its sophisticated simplicity.

'Nude Portrait of Marietta', Broncia Koller, 1907

The penultimate space was dedicated to death and Vienna’s morbid fascinations.  Posthumous and deathbed portraiture were very popular (as were death masks), and while this may seem rather pessimistic to current viewers, these works were often celebratory a well as commemorative.  The idea of the ‘beautiful corpse’ (schöne Leich) embodies this juxtaposition of beauty and dignity in life with beauty after death.  Klimt’s portrait of Ria Munk on her Deathbed (1912) is a perfect example of this kind of celebration.  Her head resting on a pillow, surrounded by flowers, the young woman could be mistaken for a literary maiden asleep, vulnerable yet beautiful, rather than the tragic reality of a young woman who shot herself in the heart.

'Ria Munk on her Deathbed', Gustav Klimt, 1912

Despite scathing reviews from the Guardian, in my opinion Gemma Blackshaw curated a show which informatively and enjoyably combined the old with the new and demonstrates the expressive power of the portrait.  Having just returned from Vienna myself, I can testify to its current magnificence and beauty.  Sadly, much of it is a reconstruction, having been torn apart by war.  But seeing this exhibition before I arrived helped me to imagine what an incredibly diverse and complex climate had occupied the city about a century ago; a radical age of theatricality, wonder, constant change and most importantly, anxiety.

'Portrait of a Lady in Black', Gustav Klimt, c.1894


With thanks to the National Gallery.  For more information, please see their website and the exhibition catalogue.

An Internship in Cape Town: AHA alum Caz St Quinton spends the summer in South Africa

Cape Town is a city bursting with expressive design. It seems the city has had to house and display this range of creativity almost overnight, resulting in streets of art galleries appearing in the city bowl. Because of this, attaining an internship at a Gallery proved astonishingly easy. During snowy January in Durham I decided to email a handful of Galleries that I had found online. To my delight I received quite a few offers. Choosing which one to accept looked a daunting prospect, but then I discovered that one of my offers, the ‘Mogalakwena Craft Art Gallery’, was running an exhibition called ‘A Glimpse: Dress and Fashion in Africa’ and so the decision suddenly became an easy one for me to make.


Mogalakwena Exhibition Brochure

I did slightly wonder what I had got myself in for when on my first morning I was immediately shown the electronic buzzer for the metal gate door and the panic button! However, after realising that this was simply a precaution which most shops take in Cape Town I began to relax and focus on work.


I had a couple of days to learn about the Gallery before I had to take tours through the ‘Dress and Fashion’ Exhibition. I found myself discussing the missionaries influence on Namibian clothing and dye techniques of the Bamileke people from Cameroon. These were things that a few days previously I had never even imagined existed and all of a sudden I was explaining them to other tourists. The highlight for many visitors was a pair of high heels painted with a chicken feather by the famous South African artist, Esther Mashlangu.


Esther Mashlangu Shoes

I loved showing visitors the room full of 18 embroidered self portraits by the Mogalakwena craft artists. Each woman had to do a self portrait using embroidery because it is the medium they are most comfortable with using. They were asked to depict themselves in their favourite outfit. Many of them dressed up in their traditional clothes which they save for church and other special occasions. They were then photographed and interviewed about dress and fashion topics, a favourite subject was trousers and how women shouldn’t wear them.

Embroidered Self Portraits

Whenever I wasn’t taking tours through the Gallery I had lots of other things to be getting on with. The most exciting was helping the owner curate a new room. We began to transform the old store room into a marine themed space. I was also busy with a proposal for the exhibition space at the five star hotel around the corner. I had the time of my life interning in Cape Town and couldn’t be more thankful for that cold, miserable, January that encouraged me to send off my applications.

The Gallery


Kettle’s Yard- the first steps…by AHA alum Maddie Brown


This coming summer holiday, I am writing a long essay on Kettle’s Yard. For those of you unfamiliar with this Cambridge collection, it is neither a gallery nor a museum… Uniquely, it is described as a ‘way of life’.


Kettle's Yard house
Exterior of Kettle's Yard


In a quiet corner of Cambridge, a two minute walk from Magdalene College, Kettle’s Yard was originally the home of Jim Ede, previously an assistant director at the Tate and was intended to act as a balanced space where modern art would be displayed alongside domestic and natural objects. From the outside, the building looks as if it could be anyone’s house; the brown/yellow brick building is pretty but not all that inspiring. It is from within that inspiration flows; central to the interior space are the ideas of physical and atmospheric harmony as well as cultural dynamism.


There is a real focus on the layout of objects and art in each room; there has to be enough space so that the visitor does not feel enclosed and is able to appreciate the art and artefacts around them. Shapes and colours of art or objects are meant to compliment one another so as to ensure they are pleasing to the eye. Ede’s intention was to create somewhere that students and young people could enjoy modern art and feel at home in a tranquil space. He wanted to create a contrast to more austere museums or public art galleries.


I first came across Kettle’s Yard in circumstances that I think Ede would be satisfied with. It was the beginning of my second week at Cambridge. I had just begun as a bright-eyed fresher although was feeling overwhelmed thanks to the combination of late nights and a sudden swamping workload… plus the fact that I was essentially living off alcohol, coffee and cold baked beans. I felt like I hadn’t had a chance to sit down and relax since I had arrived. My trip to Kettle’s Yard was an hour of the week when I decided to take some time out and see what else Cambridge had to offer beyond the clubs, Sainsbury’s and the college library. I entered the house and immediately felt myself relax. My essay worries were put to one side and I sat in the ‘sitting room’ able to focus my mind on something completely different to the Norman Conquest (first essay at Cambridge=disaster). It was at this point, now nearly a year ago, that I was first inspired to look into Kettle’s Yard and I continue to appreciate the serenity that it helps to create.


Jim Ede


But for this long essay, a part of the paper named: the history of collecting’ I need to go beyond my personal feelings and the origins of Kettle’s Yard, to contextualise both the collection and the man behind it…but where to begin?

These blogs are going to be a little record of my progress, interesting things I am reading and hopefully those who read will learn something too.

Next blog: Reading the ‘Rise of the Modern Art Market in London 1850-1939’ by Fletcher and Helmreich. An insight into the changing presentation of exhibitions in the twentieth century and links with Kettle’s Yard.






Exploring a Local Gem: The Leighton House Museum by AHA alum Cassia Price

2 Holland Park Road could be called unremarkable if seen from the street, and in its original 1866 form, perhaps it was. However, the Leighton House Museum, as it is now, is astonishing inside and out. It belonged to artist and celebrity of the 1800s Frederic Leighton (1830-1896), whose art is still scattered across not only the walls of the house, but also the globe.

Narcissus Hall, Leighton House Museum

On a leafy residential road, walking into this celebration of beauty, travel and Victorian eccentricity from the sweltering street outside felt, to me, like entering the Pantheon from the midsummer heat of Rome. It makes its visitor feel just as small, just as insignificant because of its grandeur and cultural variety, but provides a distinctly personal experience nonetheless. The serenity of the peacock-coloured entrance hall (with a stuffed peacock to match) pacifies what could have been a chaotic clash of the cultures that are represented through the house. Every object, from the ceramic tiles on the walls to the sign for the ladies’ loos seems like a well-chosen work of art, and as I moved through the museum I found that with every room came a new approach to the formal beauty of the Victorian age.

Deatail of The Arab Hall, Leighton House Museum

This is where the magic of Frederic Leighton’s house comes in. The rooms each have huge integrity and variation from one another. The graceful studio with huge windows onto the garden feels like a performance space, whereas the bedroom opposite is superbly private. The classical and Middle Eastern blend with more traditional English and colonial ideas of design, and the mixing of these ingredients leads to a different experience in each room. Frederic Leighton was a great traveller, and although the house was built before he owned it, the way the East had influenced him also influenced the house.

The Studio, Leighton House Museum

Leighton’s work itself is rich and some of it truly beautiful: the museum’s collection has works of the prolific artist himself and some of his contemporaries. However, it is by no means just a gallery, and has been organised so that visitors might enjoy more than the art alone. Pictures are crammed on some of the walls of less significant rooms, but by no means is the art secondary. The paintings propped against the backs of chairs and positioned with seemingly little order add to show that this museum is to be viewed with every room as a great work of design and decoration.

Oil study for Desdemona by Frederic Leighton
Oil study for Desdemona by Frederic Leighton

Photos courtesy of the Bridgeman Art Library and rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums/leightonhousemuseum1.aspx

Leighton House Museum,

12 Holland Park Road

London W14 8LX

The Importance of being an Aesthete by AHA tutor and actor, Richard Stemp

I realised, rather late, that one of the great compliments that Robert Woodward could pay was when he turned to you, a slightly wicked glint in his eye, and say, ‘Richard, you seem to me to be living entirely for pleasure’. It is a quotation from The Importance of Being Earnest, which I am currently touring with London Classic Theatre, and for that matter from several other works by Oscar Wilde: the man who, on entering the United States said, ‘I have nothing to declare but my genius’, was fond of quoting, if not actively plagiarising, his own work. Robert, the founder of Art History Abroad, was devoted to Oscar Wilde, and I remember him enthusing about the play, pointing out that even in the second line Wilde subverts the niceties of social convention, and starts a game, playing with paradox, and using contradiction to find out deeper truths.  Robert had made what he considered an ill-judged investment in the Channel Tunnel, but that at least rewarded him with return tickets to Paris once a year, allowing an annual pilgrimage to Wilde’s Tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery. There he would lay a green carnation – a flower ‘invented’, Wilde said, by himself, and worn by himself and others of his circle at the first ever performance of The Importance of Being Earnest at the now-defunct St James’s Theatre on 14 February 1895.

Jacob Epstein, Study for the Tomb of Oscar Wilde, 1909-11

Wilde’s genius was declared to the Americans on a lecture tour in 1882, a tour which had relatively little to do with Wilde himself, and more to do with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, an operetta satirising the Aesthetic Movement. The main character, the poet Bunthorne, was a very shallowly disguised version of Wilde himself, and the producers thought it would be a good idea to introduce the original to the American public, so that they would understand what precisely was being satirised. You could almost see it as a 19th Century equivalent of those reality T.V. shows which are used to cast – and therefore publicize – West End musicals. That Wilde was well-known enough in England to be the subject of satire was in itself remarkable: he was 28 and had, as yet, achieved nothing except notoriety. His most important work would not be written until the last decade of his relatively short life:  he died in 1900 at the age of 46, with Earnest as his last, and arguably greatest, success. The play could also be seen as marking the pinnacle, and end, of the Aesthetic Movement itself.

The movement developed from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, that short-lived confraternity of young idealists whose work continued long after the initially tight grouping split and was diluted by newly introduced artists. These included Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, who met at Exeter College, Oxford, and who remained friends and collaborators until Morris’s death in 1896. They left Oxford without graduating in 1856, having sought out Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whom they saw as the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader. By then Rossetti’s painting had moved away from the depiction of literary subjects, and from the inspiration which the Pre-Raphaelites had found in the works of Dante, Shakespeare and the Bible. No longer would art be the ‘handmaid of religion’, as John Ruskin would have had it, and Rossetti, together with Burne-Jones, and others including James MacNeill Whistler and Frederick Leighton, began to celebrate beauty, pure and simple, with no other aim: ‘Art for Art’s sake’. As Oscar Wilde said in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey, ‘All art is quite useless’.

William Morris, The Strawberry Thief, 1883

In this, Wilde was at odds with William Morris, who famously encouraged the beauty of functionality: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’. Nevertheless, the Aesthetic Movement and the Arts and Crafts Movement, fostered by Morris, go hand in hand. ‘The House Beautiful’ was one of the major concerns of both – and indeed the title of one of Wilde’s lectures during his 1882 tour of America. It was this which led Kerry Bradley, designer of London Classic’s Earnest, to use Morris fabrics for the furniture used by the ‘younger generation’ in our production. For example Jack’s chair is upholstered with a print called The Strawberry Thief designed by Morris in 1883. The cushion on Algernon’s chair has the same pattern, in a different colourway (the technical term used to describe the fact that the design is the same, but with a different combination of colours). I would like to think that there is a reason within the play why the same design is used for cushion and chair, but it may just be coincidence. And another coincidence: we are currently playing The Everyman, Cork (we opened on 29 January to a full house and rapturous applause!) and the auditorium is hung with Morris’s Windrush wallpaper. Like The Strawberry Thief this was also designed in 1883. It was first printed at Merton Abbey Mills, where I once performed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and which is only half a mile or so from our rehearsal room for Earnest in Colliers Wood. I’d like to think there is beauty even in coincidence…

William Morris, Windrush, 1883

Remembering Robert’s eulogy on the opening of The Importance of Being Earnest as we started rehearsals – I now get to say that second line – I regret not having had the chance to take the conversation further and talk about the rest of the play: there was never enough time to spend with Robert.  He was such a great enthusiast, and had, in his own way, learnt to see Beauty in everything. I remember him saying, shortly before he died, ‘I can’t find it in myself to dislike anything any more’.

It is a wonderful play – do come along! We are in Cork until 9 February, in Ireland until 3 March and then touring Britain until June 15 – the full schedule is on the London Classic Theatre website:


And if you come, stay for a drink, say ‘Hello’. It seems to me we will be living entirely for pleasure.

Mackay Baillie Scott’s ‘Moving Walls’, by Andy MacKay

Eldest son of a wealthy Scottish landowner, Baillie Scott was born in 1865 at his parents’ house on the Kent coast. Sent away to school yet refusing to attend Cambridge, instead he studied ‘science and drawing’ at the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester (1883-5) and trained in the Bath architectural practice of Major Charles Davis (1886-9). It was on his honeymoon to the Isle of Man in 1889 that he and his new wife Florence (descendant of the 18th century dandy Beau Nash) fell in love with the sleepy Celtic island and decided to stay – apparently “unable to leave” due to his seasickness! Although he later set up a fashionable practice of his own in London (designing for a German Grand Duke and a Romanian Princess), here at rural Douglas, Baillie Scott built the home he is perhaps best remembered for and where he and Florence would live until 1901.

M H Baillie Scott

The home he built in 1893 was named, significantly, ‘The Red House’. In many ways it was a deliberate homage to Philip Webb’s ground-breaking Arts & Crafts architectural ‘manifesto’, also called ‘The Red House’ (1859), at Bexleyheath in Kent – famously the home of the movement’s founder William Morris. Incorporating local vernacular styles with proletarian red-brick, Baillie Scott’s ‘Red House’ – on the surface a straightforward example of suburban architecture – is in fact one of the forgotten links between the 19th century’s English Arts & Crafts Movement and the 20th century’s International Modern Movement.

The Red House

Whilst the architecture of his contemporaries Charles Voysey and Charles Rennie Mackintosh are better known, Baillie Scott should be remembered for the very real and lasting design innovations he brought us. The most influential and long lasting of these are – prosaically – folding, retractable screen doors. Unlike his contemporaries, Baillie Scott sought to go further in his manipulation of interior space by actually ‘breaking’ walls. Anticipating 20th century changes in domestic routines he realised the need to discard with traditional delineations of function by creating ‘moving walls’. Here at his very own ‘Red House’ he provided a living manifesto for his own vision of the domestic future. With large dividing screen doors which folded away he allowed for the opening up of the interior space; both healthy and aesthetically pleasing. It is interesting that such a truly radical innovation – so intimately associated with the modernist urban architecture of Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, even Ikea – found its earliest manifestation in a suburban ‘cottage’ on a sleepy little island.

Chairs designed by Baillie Scott, 1900

During this period Baillie Scott built the extraordinary ‘Blackwell’ in The Lake District (1898-1900) for Sir Edward Holt and famously published his Houses and Gardens (1906), before going on to restore several ancient farmhouses of his own in Bedfordshire and Kent. As respected Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, he died – half forgotten – in 1945 and was buried at Edenbridge in Kent close to his beloved home ‘Oakhams’.