On the last of our London days out these summer holidays, my daughter and I experienced several real treats (at half-price entry thanks to our Art Fund Passes, which have got a lot of use this summer)…
Stop 1 – The House of Illustration – John Vernon Lord and Enid Marx
The House of Illustration is a small gallery next door to Central St Martin School of Art – in Granary Square just behind Kings Cross station alongside the canal. It always has two exhibitions alongside a changing set of Quentin Blake drawings from his archive which he pledged to the gallery back in 2003 shortly after it was opened.
They were showing Lord’s exquisite pen, ink and collage illustrations for editions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Snark books, and James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake (the latter pair for the Folio Society). JVL had written captions for much of the artwork – telling us about needing to bring something different when working on well-known books which have been previously illustrated. So for his Alice illustrations they are all from Alice’s point of view, so she only appears in a couple of pictures.
For the Joyce illustrations, he did most of them in a particular style – picking one moment for each main picture, with a bar of smaller thematic illustrations underneath – this was inspired by similar ‘predellas’ in medieval manuscripts.
Alongside his finished illustrations were sketches and his copious notebooks full of spidery writing of his research. Each series took him over 600 hours of work! I loved these so much I splashed out a tenner on the full-colour catalogue.
Those of a certain age would certainly recognise some of the work of Enid Marx, who not only illustrated many children’s books, but designed fabrics for train seats – I remember her ones for the London Underground of the 1960s – amongst many other textile and wallpaper designs. She also designed lots of stamps, including the frame around the portrait of the Queen in definitive stamps used up until 1971. It featured the four national flowers of the UK – all equally sized!
I recognised one of her fabric designs, ‘Wangle’ (below), as having been used for the endpapers of the Persephone edition of R.C.Sheriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript. (reviewed here).
Whilst we were in the area, I couldn’t resist a quick visit to Word on the Water, a secondhand bookshop on a barge moored on the Regent Canal towpath.
I did buy one book from its surprisingly diverse stock – Danny Denton’s The Earlie King & the Kid in Yellow.
Stop 2 – The V&A – Frida Kahlo
I booked our tickets about six weeks ago and was so looking forward to this exhibition – and it didn’t disappoint, despite the crowded rooms. Alongside lots of her wonderful iconic self-portrait paintings, were many photographs and films of her and her family and the love of her life Diego Rivera. For a lot of her life, she exclusively wore Mexican dress – boxy huipil tops with full-length flouncing skirts, mostly in bright colours – one huge showcase showed around twenty of her outfits displayed on specially built Frida mannequins, alongside jewellery and her trademark Rebozo scarves.
As you may know, Frida not only suffered from polio as a child, leaving her with a wasted leg, but also nearly died in a tram accident and lived in pain ever after. Ever the artist, she built the plaster casts and corsets she had to wear into her art – and one room was full of cases of these, along with leg braces and so on, all customised by her. The most moving item for me were decorated full body casts, one with a hole, representing the baby inside her that she’d miscarried.
Having been a bit ambivalent about her and her ubiquitous unibrow before, I was completely won over by this exhibition, her art, and her beauty – both inner and outer. It’s run has been extended now until the beginning of November, so do go if you can. (click here).
Stop 3 – Fun Home at the Young Vic
I haven’t been to the Young Vic since 1989, when I saw the RSC Othello with Willard White, Ian McKellen, Imogen Stubbs and Zoe Wanamaker. Having been rebuilt in 2000, I didn’t recognise the theatre’s interior, with its wide and surprisingly deep stage, and intimate feel for the relatively small audience.
My daughter spotted the rave reviews of this new musical, and I think I managed to get the last pair of seats before only odd singles were left. It’s based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home – a tragicomic, with music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. It can lay claim to being the first mainstream musical to have a lesbian lead role that is just refreshingly normal.
A multi-award winner of Tonys on Broadway, the staging of this musical was brilliantly done – with three actors playing Alison at various stages in her life – the sparky ten-year-old(?) to the new girl going to college and coming out, to the established artist who watches and comments on her younger selves throughout. It’s more than just the story of a gawky teenager discovering her sexuality and coming out though – at the heart is her relationship (such as it is) to her father who runs the
funeral ‘fun’ home.
It opens with Small Alison centre stage exhorting her father to come and play aeroplanes with her – one of the few physical interactions the older Alison remembers with her distant and uptight dad, and it goes on from there. The first half is quite breezy and comical – there is a notable early number where Small Alison and her brothers are hiding in a coffin waiting to record a hilarious Jackson-5 inspired commercial for the Fun Home, while a bereaved customer is trying to choose. Then, when Medium Alison discovers her first love at college, she sings ‘I’m changing my major to ‘Joan”. Increasingly though, things take on a darker tone as the truth about Alison’s parents’ relationship seeps out and her father becomes increasingly affected.
The entire cast were superb, but the principals were all amazing – the three Alisons, Kaisa Hammarlund, Eleanor Kane and young Harriet Turnbull; Zubin Varla as father Bruce (I last saw him on stage as Romeo at Stratford in 1995) and Jenna Russell (who despite a turn as Michelle in Eastenders has a serious musical pedigree, notably in Sondheim) as mother Helen. It was rather fab and at only 1 hr 40 mins with no interval, got us home before midnight for a change.