The Craft of Art is the collective name for a couple of statues by Adrian Jeans which, for the duration of the Liverpool Biennial 2014, will sit in the incongruous setting of the Met Quarter in the centre of the city – a shopping mall full of expensive shops, with products produced by slave labour, to be bought by people who don’t really need them and with money they don’t have.
The two statues are called An Allegory of Death and Destruction and An Allegory of Life and Creation and are supposed to represent, through the Chinese/English model and the debris of the Victorian houses on which she stands, the international nature of the city and how it has changed over time.
Apart for the colour, one is white the other dark grey, the statues are the same apart from the fact that in her hands the figure holds an AK47 in one and a bunch of weeds in the other.
It seems that Jeans is one of those who thinks that the building of shopping centres and the proliferation of cafes, restaurants and bars in what used to be warehouses and banks indicates that the city has stepped out of the decay that it was in during the final decades of the 20th century.
But his representation is reactionary in contrasting the two images.
If there was one point where national government took in interest in post industrial Liverpool it was after the riots in Liverpool 8 in 1981. Up to that time the Thatcher government (as well as the so-called Labour opposition) had basically written off the city. Why? Because it was prepared to fight.
To Thatcher’s chagrin she was forced to allow in injection of money to the city in the form of the Garden Festival of 1984. After two, seven-year periods of EU Objective One money (given only to the poorest parts of Europe and Liverpool was the only one (ever) to have received two bites of that particular cherry) things were still bleak. By the end of the century the fight had gone out of Liverpool as it had in all other parts of the country and now low paid jobs in retail, catering and tourism are considered adequate compensation for the loss of the traditions which the city held for hundreds of years.
These are the weeds that the white statue holds in her hands. For the flowers that we look for in a decent future are not gained without struggle and sacrifice, ‘without taking up the AK47’ which Jeans considers only represents death and destruction.
However, this sort of debate about contemporary art can only take place when we consider the two statues together. The interpretation of a single piece would lead to an entirely different perception.
The statue with the gun, especially as the model is Chinese and wearing a military style cap, would seem to indicate a guerrilla fighter. The one without the gun is just a Chinese woman holding a bunch of weeds.
Another point which this installation poses surrounds the ‘Do not touch’ signs. It’s not only here but also in the main centre of this year’s Biennial at the ex-unemployed centre on Hardman Street. One of the things I thought modern, people-centred artists (who are supposed to be those exhibiting at such Biennials) wanted to create a closer connection with the viewer. How is that possible if they literally put their creations on a pedestal and don’t allow any tactile involvement. NB. This installation is part of the Independents Biennial!
Some of these artists pretend to be ‘of the people’ but they are merely younger versions of those precious, self-obsessed artists from history.
The management of the Met Quarter probably see themselves as patrons of the arts and being magnanimous by allowing the statures space on the ground floor of the mall. However, they couldn’t be any further back and are so ‘out’ of the shopping space that the shops spaces closest to them are empty, whatever businesses might have been there in the past unable to make a go of it – even in the present phantom up-turn in the economy.
Nonetheless they are worth going in to have a look. If you do make sure that you look out for the alcove on the left hand side as you go to see The Craft of Art. Here, next to the lifts, is the War Memorial to fallen postal workers that used to sit in the main hall of the Post Office when the building was Liverpool’s main sorting office. This beautiful statue, a young woman with bowed head mourning the dead, is by the Liverpool sculptor George Herbert Tyson Smith. One of his other works is the unique Cenotaph on the St George’s Plateau (where another of the Independents Biennial projects, The Middle Way (the red hand), will be on display).
The installation will be in place until 31st August 2014.
As a companion to the statues in the Met Quarter Jeans also has a display of six heads in a shop window in Nelson Street, the centre of Liverpool’s Chinatown.
Once a vibrant street (not too many years ago) any visit here now is a sad affair. Although Jeans argues that Liverpool has been ‘revived’ the corpse looks definitely dead in Chinatown. There are more plants growing out of the buildings than are on the street, the largest Chinese arch in the world outside China looks incongruous next to the Blackie and the once fascinating pub, the Nook, has been closed down for years.
The Nook, Nelson Street
“In the world today all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such think as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.”
Mao Tse-tung, Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, May 1942
Having taken 16 days to get across country, from the Irish to the North Sea, the aim was to try to get back in one and, as part of the game, to try to see if it was possible to get from Robin Hood’s Bat to Liverpool, without too much pain, by using the Twearlys’ All England Bus Pass.
First I had to get out of Robin Hood’s Bay. As things worked out I had decided to leave at the first opportunity. The weather wasn’t looking too promising (and during the course of the day became considerably worse) and I suppose I was also getting fed up of the instability that comes with being away from home. There were no real problems it was just that I didn’t feel like chasing around to fill my time with something useful. It’s one of the consequences when you set yourself a task, a target, that on completion there’s a sense of anti-climax, the adrenalin that has kept you going returns to normal levels and consequently you feel tired. So I thought a day sitting on a bus, gradually heading west, was the best option.
Robin Hood’s Bay would be a pleasant place to spend some time in the right conditions (as is the YHA at Boggle Hole) and I’ll make an effort to return in the not too distant future – as well as getting to Whitby to experience the famous fish and chips. It’s different from what I expected. I didn’t realise that the old part of the village is at the bottom of a very steep hill and that caused me to wander around aimlessly looking for the bus stop the day before.
There’s a strange ‘monument’ at the bottom of the hill, next to the Coast to Coast finish/start sign. This is a statue, if that is the right word, of a fish, donated by a couple of locals (I assume), a Captain Isaac Mills and his wife. Didn’t notice a date and have no idea what it’s supposed to represent. So that the fish won’t escape it’s fenced in.
What makes Robin Hood’s Bay Famous!
Before relaxing on the English local bus network there was one last challenge – and that was getting up the hill. There had been some steep ascents during the last couple of weeks and this was one of the steepest, but thankfully short, if not so sweet.
With the timetables of the buses I reckoned I could get back across country in about 10 hours. This would be on 5 different buses and some of the changeovers were tight so a delay of only 10 minutes or so at a couple of places would have meant a delay of another hour or two, so there was a lot resting on the buses keeping to their timetable.
In planning the exact buses to catch I had forgotten one crucial fact – and that’s the time limitations on the bus pass, i.e., it’s not valid before 09.30. Trying to use the pass before that time brands someone a ‘twearly/twirly’ (don’t know if there’s an official way of spelling it). For those who may not have come across it this is the term applied to any old fart who tries to get on a public bus before 09.30. It almost certainly has it derivation in Liverpool, that city and Sheffield being the only two metropolitan areas that offered free travel to over 60s long before it became a national affair.
A ‘twearly/twirly’ would stand at the bus stop anything from 10 or 15 minutes before the pass was valid and would ask the driver ‘Is it too early to use my pass?’. Perhaps the first ones to try it succeeded but after a while drivers began to realise that the same people would be trying it on and so started to stick to the time limit. As drivers would change the persistent old arses would keep on trying and hence the term came into everyday use in Liverpool.
I think it’s probably spreading around the country now, especially in the major cities but, fortunately for me, has not yet become an issue in North Yorkshire. I was at the bus stop for the 09.24 bus and it wasn’t till it came to me en route to Scarborough that I realised I had, inadvertently (honest) joined the ranks of the ‘twearlies/twirlies’.
Travelling long distance on local buses is an interesting experience/pastime. For one thing, being used, as we have become, to racing along at 70 plus mph on motorways when travelling by road we have lost the pleasure of passing through small towns and villages. The pace is obviously slower so when you are passing places of interest there’s actually time to see what’s there. The routes will change from fastish dual carriageways to then follow a quiet country road on the off-chance that someone in an out-of-the-way village is waiting for the bus. For those with no transport of their own these bus services become a bit of a lifeline to the outside world. I cursed these diversions (unfairly) when my bus was running late, especially when no one would subsequently either get off or on the bus, but that’s just being selfish.
The outside world is seen in a different light but so is the internal, the one inside the bus itself.
Travelling throughout the day you get to understand the different groups of bus travellers who occupy the different time slots and you get an insight of people’s lives as they interact with public transport. And it’s not always that edifying.
On the first bus, from Robin Hood’s Bay to Scarborough, leaving as it did at 09.24 it was too late for the early start workers, or even schoolchildren, but even on that bus there appeared to me to be a handful of people who might be starting work a little later, or even travelling to work via Scarborough railway station, the terminus for this particular route. Together with them you find those who might be making relatively local visits, going early morning shopping or having a day out in the larger seaside town.
The bus from Scarborough was completely different. Going all the way to Leeds (a scheduled journey of 2 hours 45 minutes which takes in York) this was packed by the time it left the centre of the city and was almost full of people using a bus pass. Some going only a short distance but quite a few getting out at York. They would have been on a day trip, returning after an afternoon wandering the narrow streets of the old town. But that bus also picked up people doing their shopping and those travelling relatively short distances to carry out the everyday affairs that make up people’s existence – visiting family and friends, doctors, dentists, signing on at the dole, getting away from annoying family members, trying to escape for a short time, basically just doing something different to break up the monotony of their mundane lives.
From Leeds the make-up of the passengers changed again. Some seemed to be going home after sorting out their affairs in the big city, perhaps after dealing with officialdom or shopping. Then there were the first people who may have started work really early, on a morning shift perhaps, and going home in the middle of the afternoon as they had started in the middle of the night. As we got closer to Skipton (this bus’ terminus) it got darker and soon we were travelling through driving rain. These were the weather conditions I thought I might have had to face, but fortunately for me didn’t, as the winds from the east kept me dry. Once I didn’t need them the winds reverted to normal and hence the torrential rain, which kept falling until I was almost within sight of Liverpool. Towards the end of this journey schoolchildren started to appear as by 15.30 we were coming towards the end of the school day.
The changeover in Skipton was tight, only 5 minutes between one bus scheduled arrival time and the next one, to Preston, leaving. By now the rain was persistent and heavy and Skipton bus station is not somewhere you want to spend a lot of time in such weather conditions. One of the problems with the deregulation of buses, and the slashing of staffing levels, is that there’s no one present to hold buses back for a few minutes if a connecting bus is delayed. There must have been 7 or 8 people doing the same as myself and transferring to the Preston bus but if the Leeds bus had arrived only 5 minutes later it would have meant another hour’s wait for the next one. There’s just no planning for these situations when technology provides an easy way to create an integrated transport network, possible even with many bus companies if there was the will. But timetable punctuality means more than passenger ‘satisfaction’, something which also happens on the railways. If notice boards contained passenger comments rather than meaningless statistics we would all have a better understanding of transport infrastructure efficiency in Britain.
But ‘a close to Skipton bus station pub’s’ loss was my gain as the next bus pulled into its bay less than a minute after I got there. Now the passenger mix changed yet again. There were a few of us long haul passengers, making it all the way from Leeds to Preston – and beyond. Again people returning home along the almost 2 hours of this route. But dominated by schoolchildren. Passing through a number of small Yorkshire and then Lancashire towns the route passes many schools so not a surprise that they would be providing the passengers. What did surprise me was the distance some of these young people had to travel. They weren’t in any way going to a local high school. This was the case at the beginning of the route but became even more pronounced on the second half of the journey where some of these kids were on the bus for 45 minutes or more, to then arrive in the centre of Preston – how much further they had to go I wouldn’t know. And we’re not talking about a local bus that gets caught up in traffic lights and roundabouts. This was a bus that raced along dual carriageways and the miles soon mount up. These children must have been spending at least a couple of hours a day just getting to and from school and that can’t be right. I walked to all my schools and if it took longer than 10 minutes you were dawdling, surely that’s a more civilised approach to education?
The final stage from Preston to Liverpool was the 17.30 commuter bus. They are always quiet as people tend to travel alone and with mobile devices there’s even less incentive to communicate with fellow travellers. But even on this bus there was an indication of the pressures that are placed on working people in ‘austerity forever Britain’. A young teacher, or trainee, was looking through her class’s workbooks for the first part of the journey (which for her was over an hour). This is as bad as the circumstances of the schoolchildren earlier. She wouldn’t have got home much before 19.00 and I can’t imagine what time she left in the morning. I would like to think she had spent an hour or so in the pub after finishing teaching but I think that is, unfortunately, unlikely. People are working too long! When I was involved in the trade union we were fighting for a shorter working week/life but that is all a thing of the past now. The advantage of her working such a long day is that she won’t have to wait until her early 70s before retiring, she’ll be dead before then.
One of the last of my travelling ‘companions’ was a young women who had obviously been spending some time mucking out stables. This information was gleaned not from her dress or what she might have said but by the smell of horse piss and shit emanating from her foot wear. Judging (is this being prejudiced and imposing stereotypical points of view?) by where she got off the bus she was unlikely to have been the owner of a horse, more a stable girl. But why bring her work home with her, and in the process leaving her mark on a public bus? So many questions, so few answers.
By now the rain had stopped. The streets were wet but I had, yet again since leaving home just over a couple of weeks ago, missed getting seriously wet. Liverpool awaited. It had taken me 13 days walking to get from west to east and just 10 hours (more or less) to get from east to west.
St George’s Hall is one of the most impressive buildings in Liverpool (in a city which has many) and gives an indication of the wealth that once passed through what was once claimed to be ‘the second city of the Empire’ – after London (although other cities claim this ‘accolade’, Glasgow and Bristol being two of them). The Minton Tile floor is an expression of this wealth.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about the building itself (I’ll do that in other posts) as here I want to concentrate upon the Minton tiled floor of the main concert room, which has recently been on public view for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t long after the building opened in 1854 that a decision was made to cover the sunken part of the floor to protect the tiles for posterity. In some ways a strange decision as the covering of the more than 30,000 tiles takes away much of the splendour of the hall itself. Don’t get me wrong, the concert hall is still very impressive, but it’s a bit like a book with part of the story missing.
However, that decision made so long ago does mean that on the occasions when the floor is uncovered visitors get an unparalleled idea of what was it was possible to achieve during the heyday of Britain’s industrial greatness. Comparing the protected tiles with the surrounds you are able to appreciate the way that the lack of protection has taken its toll in some places but also to realise that these tiles are incredibly hardy as many areas have survived quite well.
So a few facts and figures. St George’s Hall, built in the middle of the 19th century, is classified as a neoclassical building. That means it takes its architectural influence from the buildings that remain from ancient Greece and Rome – and the Hall mixes the two. Not strictly so, but more or less Greek on the outside and Roman on the inside, especially in the main concert hall where the inspiration for the architect, Harvey Londsdale Elmes, came from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.
At the time when it was unveiled the floor was the largest pavement of its kind in existence being some 140 feet long and 72 wide and was constructed using more than 30,000 tiles. The part of the floor that is normally covered is sunken and is a couple or feet or so below the walk way that goes around the edge of the hall. When uncovered it’s possible to see the grills that were all part of the central heating (and cooling) system that was all part of the original design and one of the first of its kind in the modern world – we have forgotten much of what the Romans had learnt. However, the covering of the floor meant that the imaginative innovation came to nought, at least in the main hall.
In the centre there’s the Royal Coat of Arms, measuring 5 feet in diameter. On both sides of that design the rest of the floor is basically symmetrical, along the length of the hall. Within those two areas are found: the Liverpool Coat of Arms; the Star of St George; the Rose; the Thistle; and the Shamrock. I’m afraid for the Welsh there is nothing, even though the Welsh had a huge influence on the early development of Liverpool and it’s more than likely that many of the men working on the site would have been Welsh, the building trades being where they tended to gravitate. Between these picture designs there are large swirling arcs which are made up of flower designs and filling the gaps geometric designs following a regular patter. At both ends of the hall there are semi-circles that have the face of Neptune at the apex and on both sides are sea satires and nymphs in amorous embrace, together with dolphins and other sea creatures. The dominant colours are buff, brown and blue.
To give an idea of how the tiles were made I can do no better than reproduce a description from one of the local Liverpool newspapers which carried a long story about the Hall at the time of its opening in 1854:
The antique practise of tile making, as appears from the existing remains of ancient works, confined the manufacture of the use of few colours or tints. The method commonly used seems to have been this: – A piece of well tampered clay having been prepared, of a proper size (usually about six inches square and one inch in thickness), a die, having some ornament in relievo was pressed upon it, the indented pattern thus produced was then filled in with clay of some other colour, generally white, the tile was then covered with a metallic glaze, which imparted to the ground (usually red) a deeper and richer colour, and gave the white ornament a yellowish hue. These tiles were often arranged in sets of 4, 16, or more, and sometimes intersected with bands of plain tiles, of a self colour, such as black, red and white, and frequently displayed great geometrical skill and beauty of effect. Good examples may be seen in the churches of St Denis and St Omer, in France, and specimens from the abbeys of Juvaulux, Westminster, and other buildings in England. The modern process of encaustic tile making, as adopted by Messers MINTON, HOLLINS and Co, enables them to produce not only a far greater variety and brilliance of colour in the general effect of a pavement, but admits of several colours being placed upon a single tile, thus producing a soft effect of fine mosaic work, in a much more durable and less expensive material.
From The Liverpool Mercury, September 19th, 1854
In the more distant past the floor was only uncovered at very long intervals, 10 years or more, but it looks like this event has set to become an annual affair.
There have been suggestions to try and construct a glass floor over at least a part of the sunken area but so far they have come to nought. And anyway that might allow an understanding of the skill of the craftsmen and the beauty of the design but not of its scale, which can only be appreciated when fully uncovered. To keep the floor on permanent display would bring into conflict the preservation of a unique architectural attribute with the desire to use a major City Centre public indoor space.
I hope the slide show below will provide an idea of what is hidden from view 48 weeks of the year.
Minton Tile Floor Reveal 2019
This year the floor will be uncovered between Thursday 1st and Monday 26th August 2019. Entrance is via the Heritage Centre on St John’s Lane from 10.00 – 17.00 everyday (but not Monday 19th August). Entrance to the Great Hall is £3.30 (under 16s normally get in free – but no information on webpage this year). This allows the visitor to get an overall view of the floor from the balcony.
There are opportunities to walk on the floor, obviously providing a closer view of the art work, as part of a guided tour. These will take place between 10.00-11.00 and 16.00-17.00 each day the floor is uncovered. In the past the demand has been so great that extra slots have been created – so check back of the ticket site for an updates if tours start to fill. Each group is limited to a maximum of 30 people. Only bookable online by visiting the TicketQuarter website. Tickets cost £13.20 per person.
There’s another option to get a closer look at the floor if you book for the event known as ‘A Night on the Tiles’ which takes place on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays between Thursday 1st August and Saturday 24th August from 18.00 and 21.00. This allows you to walk on the floor, you get a class of something fizzy and costs £15.40 per person. Get all tickets in advance, online, at the TicketQuarter page.