Sunday, 9 April 2017
YORK ART GALLERY 27th DECEMBER 2015
This blog is written retrospectively, a brief look back at a trip to that most beautiful and interesting English city, our second capital. I write to celebrate the wonderful city of York, a city steeped in history, art and culture.
I travelled soon after Christmas with my friend Corinna in 2015, a journey not everyone approved of but not because of the company, the distance or the location. Many of my family and my friends voiced concern with regards the weather. England was at that time experiencing exceptionally heavy rain and this was causing flooding in many parts of the country. Parts of the North of England were particularly badly hit and York itself was under threat. The Ouse had broken its banks nearby and our ability to travel safely was therefore questioned.
Corinna and I decide to brave the conditions and approached York from the south west in the hope of avoiding the more severely and therefore, more dangerous areas affected. Even this route however, was not without its excitement. We were able to see first-hand the severity of the flooding, although we travelled on roads predominantly clear of the surface waters, we passed flooded fields, a village with water halfway up the ground floor windows and even a playing field, that had its goal posts halfway underwater. It was not a sight I will easily forget.
Driving into York looking for a parking space we passed roads that were closed off and more houses with flooded gardens, driveways and access roads. The thought did occur to us that even if we got into the centre of York, we may not get out. We eventually found a safe and suitably dry side street, parked and made our way towards the city centre on foot.
The walk was pleasant, the air was not too cold and the sun was bright. We were able to appreciate the older architectural features of the route, ruins, walls and buildings. We paused on the outskirts of the old city before the Bootham Bar and turning towards our primary destination, the Art Gallery. Here I viewed that old Medieval Gate with the Minster behind. My pause here was deliberate, as I considered the historical wonder of this great city.
Here on walls of this city the head of Richard Plantagenet Duke of York, was mounted after the battle of Wakefield. He was the father of the future Edward IV and Richard III, grandfather of Elizabeth of York and therefore, ancestor of all English kings since. Shakespeare makes great play of this great Duke’s death in his play Henry VI Part 2 and has the head of John Clifford the 9th Baron de Clifford, latter mounted on the same walls. This last action is unlikely to be historically accurate but it serves to illustrate the place of York within the British consciousness.
The Art Gallery is not an old building but sits conveniently nestled between far older ones, set back on an attractive plaza with a pool out front. Examples from the exhibitions inside are displayed as posters on hoardings on the nearby wall and the building has a welcoming, airy entrance. Inside there is the necessary ticket booth, a convenient café, other conveniences and a ground floor gallery for the temporary exhibitions.
In this first hall we were able to view a delightful exhibition of Florentine art, with exhibits representative of the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods. The pieces were examples of religious iconography, ornate creations of oil and rich gilt upon wooden boarding. Much was typical of the Italian ‘school’ but equally, much was reminiscent of the ‘icons’ of the Russian Orthodox Church, in particular the obvious altar works and triptychs.
Several works by the esteemed Laurence Stephen Lowry were on display in the second gallery. Never had I seen so many in one place, so this provided us with the very unusual opportunity of comparing his works as a group and not in isolation. Previously I have not been an admirer of Lowry, being familiar with his works through the medium of photography, I have been unable to adequately appreciate his ability. Here in the direct physical experience, without the use of a second medium and viewing his works collectively; I was able to perceive his genius, his depth and his range. Lowry is so much more than ‘matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs.’ Lowry captures life in the North of England, real people with real hopes and experiences. There is meaning to his work that is not at first apparent.
The picture collection in York is impressive and surprisingly extensive, covering a range of styles across time and subject. There is a pleasing inclusion of local, perhaps less well known artists, amongst those of a broader appeal. Not all is as traditional as the Florentine works or as typically representative of Britain as Lowry, other works are of an abstract, modernist nature.
The upper galleries were no less extensive or broad in the presentation, as the collections included many curious exhibits of quality. The ceramic collection was so enormous, that it was difficult to fully assimilate. There were so many charming and unusual items, truly a feast of size and colour, with many very unusual and disturbing items, that the display was quite overwhelming.
In the centre of the large hall was housed a display of white ceramics on shelving stretching to the roof. The bowls and vases although of a uniform colour, were not of a uniform shape and were displayed in manner that invited the viewer to visually explore them. Here I stopped to appreciate an unexpected and pleasing phenomenon, the sunlight coming through the skylights creating a pleasing display of light and shadow across the ceiling supports.
The further galleries successfully maintained our mood of pleasurable curiosity with a puzzling mixture of exhibits, which although not necessarily relating to a particular or related theme, somehow complimented the general atmosphere and experience. Across one wall a display of aquatic taxidermy was placed in deliberate juxtaposition to a display of avian taxidermy. Further displays of pottery that included some very fine equine studies, led us to a magnificent display of rocking horses and cavalry jackets. This display by a most tenuous but amusing association, brought us to a fascinating and theatrical toy collection.
The upper floors of the gallery are home to a range of delightful curiosities. There are treasures that surprise the visitor in almost every display case and corner. York Art Gallery itself is a venue of outstanding quality, with exhibits of importance and interest, the visitor cannot help but be impressed by the presentation and composition of the collections.
Leaving the wonders of the gallery behind, we headed towards the old city in search of lunch, before heading on to the Shambles. The Shambles itself is officially only one street called Shambles, narrow and pedestrianised, it is derived from the old name for a butcher’s market. Famous for its age and overhanging buildings, it has a certain quaint atmosphere and remains a well-known tourist attraction. More generally however, the term ‘the Shambles’ refers to the street and other connecting ones, including the five connecting Snickleways, that collectively form the famous medieval shopping heart of old York.
Hidden in the centre of the Shambles, between gifts, antique and book shops, is a substantial chapel. This is the shrine of Margaret Clitherow, a Catholic martyr and saint, one of many tragic victims of the religious troubles of the sixteenth century. The shrine is allegedly the site of her husband’s butchers shop but due to a renumbering of the street in the century after her death, the actual shop is now believed to be the building opposite. It is a charming and peaceful shrine, which provides a place of quietness, away from the hustle and bustle of the shops.
Further along the street we became aware of the most beautiful and irresistible aroma of fudge. We had stumbled upon Roly’s Fudge Pantry, so naturally we perused their wares and chatted to the staff.
The Shambles that day although busy, was not as crowded as usual. The actual and threat of the floods had kept many away. Indeed many shops were closed, staff either could not get in or had concerns that once in York, they would not get out. This we learnt talking to the staff at Roly’s who were themselves, considering closing early.
Leaving the Shambles we debated our own course of action, to head for home and safety, to stay longer? The sensible option was to leave whilst still light but other options presented themselves. York Minster was lit beautifully in the late afternoon sun and invited us to make it our third port of call.
My friend Corinna is a Roman Catholic, I am a Pagan of rather traditional tastes. It cannot be denied that as two friends we are a decidedly odd couple, yet we share many a common interest, in art, history, spirituality and music.
We paused outside the main entrance to admire the ornamentation, including some quite stunning scenes depicting the creation of the world, the temptation of Eve and the expulsion from Eden. On the opposite side of the door arch, there was work of equal quality that depicted scenes from the lives of Noah and Abraham.
We were surprised to discover that entrance that day was free, this was in recognition of the flooding. Fewer people had journeyed to York, attendance was down and there was to be a special service for the victims of the flooding. We took great pleasure in exploring this magnificent church building, admiring both the famous Rose window and the Heart window from the inside, illuminated beautifully by the setting sun.
Our exploration included the Chapter House, famous for the ornate ceiling and the nearby tombs, both are areas of the church decorated by remarkable carvings. The roof bosses of York are of obvious interest, many are old but many are modern replacements. These were placed during the 1980’s restoration following the fire and some were designed by viewers of the BBC children’s television programme Blue Peter.
Being so soon after Christmas the various decorations were still in place, including trees, a very impressive Nativity Scene and the largest Advent Crown I have ever seen. The nearby Astronomical Clock is a large wooden built monument standing in the north transept. It is actually a war memorial commemorating some 18,000 Royal Air Force personal who based in Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland, gave their lives during the Second World War.
We decided to join a sizable group for the service in the choir stalls and we were delighted to discover that a coral group from Europe, was to provide the musical interludes. Now it may indeed appear somewhat odd that a Catholic and Pagan should wish to attend such a service. Yet although it may be impossible for either of us to fully participate in such, our attendance is a recognition of the place of the church within our society and is a cultural as well as spiritual experience.
This is not the first time that Corinna and I have attended a church service together. Corinna once took me to a Catholic Mass. That was primarily for her benefit but it is well known that besides the cultural experience, I very much enjoy church music. I do not believe that my friend seeks to convert me, anymore than I seek to bring her to the Pagan faith. Although we do occasionally joke about our trips and the associated services.
Leaving the Minster we found York to be in darkness, the birth place of Guido Fawkes (better known as Guy and a member of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators) to be lit up and busy. Once a family home, the building is now a public house called the Guy Fawkes Inn. The sign is a design based upon the mask from the film V for Vendetta, well done but not to my traditional taste.
We returned to the car, still safely parked and not yet washed away, to begin our journey home. We could reflect on a very full and enjoyable day, on a homebound journey far less exciting than the journey in. Whether the flooding had abated or whether due to the darkness, we travelled in blissful oblivion and unaware of the flooding either side of the road is hard to say.
There is so much we did not explore, there is so much that York has to offer. The Viking history of the city is well known, as is the tragedy of Clifford’s Tower. Attractions associated with these we did not have time to explore and some we could not, the Jorvic Viking Centre was flooded.
York is a city of glory and it basks in this glory. Whether it is the glory of the Christian Faith, in a history both bloody and significant, that stretches from Roman times through Viking and Medieval to the modern period. The glory of York is found in this history, in the architecture and in art; all this and more serve to make this our northern capital, a cultural treasure.
Drakes Fish and Chip Restaurant
Saint Margaret Clitherow of York
Roly’s Fudge Pantry York
York Art Gallery