I have a personal Thursday pleasure and it is to choose my PCF picture of the week over a strong black coffee. The ten I have chosen to date are a visual log of the last two months of my London journey. “The Gullies (Covent Garden, London)” is my picture from 19 July 2012.
The public send in comments via an online option called Art Detective and it is my duty to log these comment. As I do so, I click over to the image referenced in the message. Each week I enter a parallel world of a people’s art and social history. The Your Paintings archive has brought together the outer world of the UK’s paintings and the inner worlds of artists, institutions and lived lives, and put them in front of me on a screen.
I came across “The Gullies (Covent Garden, London)” by Peter Snow after logging an email about another of his works, “The Passing World” (1985). Snow’s image caught my attention because the Public Catalogue Foundation’s offices are in Covent Garden, on Maiden Lane. The kitchenette windows look out onto similar rooftops and the back windows of rented office spaces. On a grey day, a wintery day, I can imagine that this is how these rooftops are shaded in similar dull shades, murky greens and weary browns.
My view from the computer is of arched windows across the road with three neat, potted round-headed topiaries on a sill. The colouring on this side is different, too: white, those green, topiary balls and bricks of a softer, warmer, baked biscuit hue. Heard though unseen, below bustles a street of restaurants and bars; in the morning string-armed delivery men unpack crates of alcohol, at lunch business commences. I think of as green and yellow/ gold as the colours of below. Firstly because the awnings of London’s oldest restaurant, Rules, are themed in these shades and the door to the PCF offices is green. Secondly, because the South African shop is down the street; the combination of ‘green and gold’ calls on an embedded memory of school-lesson patriotism.
“The Gullies” took me back to my high school art history classes in the early 1990s, in Cape Town. In those days Mr Cain still lit up the theory room wall with images from a slide projector. Those slides opened up the worlds for me. When I saw these Covent Garden gullies I remembered Piet Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie – Woogie” (1942-43, oil on canvas, 50- 50 cm, New York, Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)). One of Mondrian’s last paintings, it captures his bird’s eye view, we were told, of the hustle-bustle and jazz-fuelled streets of 1940s New York. He was in a great city, but far from home. He looked down on his new urban landscape, as a voyeur of the urban maze.
Gan Gan was my London Granny, she was born in 1917 and raised in the city between the two World Wars. “My Fair Lady” was her favourite musical. In one of my last memories of her more lucid, we are sitting on the edge of my parents’ bed watching it. She was in her 80s; I about 12. This was 17 years before I came to London, when England was still as once upon a time as Eliza Doolittle, Dick Whittington, the bluebells and nostalgia in Gan Gan’s quarterly copies of This England magazine. England was a place of purple, blue, grey and rain. It was “The Cries of London” on decorative plates along her staircase wall. It smelled like Eau de Cologne 4711, tasted like milky tea with honey and Tennis Biscuits. (Coconutty Tennis Biscuits are not quintessentially English, but in Gan Gan’s kitchen at tea time they become so.) London’s song was “Knees up Mother Brown” and the pop of a large biscuit tin opening.
In July I was not so well, but remained hopeful and “The Gullies” maps out a grisly, possibly-paved-with-gold London for me. I love “The Gullies (Covent Garden, London)” for the free-running it gives my imaginary London and my recent real experience. There’s something very rich in it, and it sparks a leaping of parkour proportions in my creative brain. Not unlike the crazy time I have spent in this remarkable city.
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In respect of copyright, I have not reproduced Peter Snow’s lovely images with this piece. If you click on the painting titles above, you will be taken to the Your Painting’s website where these images are archived. “Your Paintings is a website which aims to show the entire UK national collection of oil paintings, the stories behind the paintings, and where to see them for real. It is made up of paintings from thousands of museums and other public institutions around the country.”