Tuesday 29 March 2011

An arty March

I have been lucky enough to attend two very interesting art exhibitions this month. Both were put on by friends of mine and both were very different in content and atmosphere.

The first was the opening of the Bury Collective arts event; a group of artists poets and musicians from and around Bury put together after my friend Diane and her colleage Lee had the idea to put a showcase of local talent together. Held at The Met, the opening night was packed (over 300 people attended!) and full of your intersting art types. I swapped business cards with aspiring writers and singers in bowler hats. There were impromptu art perfomances and fabulous entertaiment by Dr Butler's Hatstand Medicine Band.

Plus the variety and quality of work displayed on the walls of The Met's bar and lounge area was really impressive. The exhibition runs for the next four weeks and is free to all Met patrons. I look forward to seeing what the Bury Collective do next!

My second visit was to a new exhibition by Darren Nixon held at Rogue Studios in Manchester. I've watched Darren's painting style change dramatically over the years (I'm sure he's seen the same with me) and this collection of new paintings was really strong and thought provoking. It's one of those shows that takes you out of everyday normality for a few minutes then kicks you out again with a feeling of wonder and a head full of questions.

By Darren Nixon

The exhibition's title is Obstruction and reflects our views on life and how we understand it. With this work Darren has tried to take himself out of the equation and leave the viewer to make up their own minds. I wanted to say 'Oh I love this one' or 'that one is lovely' but to be honest the work was all slightly unsettling and gave off a feeling of isolation and chaos. Which is exactly why the collection of paintings was so good and did what all good art should, it made me want to look at it.

Painted directly onto abstract backgrounds and alien landscapes, figures have been added and left there to fend for themselves. Each set of people was found in a newspaper and then taken out of context with all clues as to their meaning taken away; A set of cross country skiers now hobbles splaylegged and ski-less through a thick white ground looking like an attack of zombies;

By Darren Nixon

Whilst a group of men standing around a cave entrance could be rescuers or something much more sinister as they peer directly at the viewer, cutting our escape route as we edge closer to the rock wall. 

With all links and context taken away I was left to try and figure this out myself.

I like seeing art that challenges me and Obstruction did just that. I didn't know if I was witnessing the innermost thoughts of Darren's mind or simply projecting my own discomfort and confusion onto the canvases. I also like art with a story and with this work there are countless stories being hinted at but no satifying conclusion. If not careful you could be stuck in them forever just like the nameless characters trying to find their way out.

To find out more about Darren's work contact: artbydarrennixon@yahoo.co.uk

Friday 25 March 2011

It's all going on!

The first installment of Mrs Brown's Diary is now online! This unfolding story reveals the significance of the items that make up the 1950's dressing room which has been created through my collabortive project with Stoke Pottieres Musuem and Art Galley. The diary is your chance to find out who this character is; the first post covers her visit to the Grand Re-opening of the Theatre Royal in Hanley and introduces her relationship with George her husband, but just why is he so upset?

Last Saturday was the official first day of  dressing room display and to mark the occassion a local burlesque performer called Lottie Applejack dressed in period costumes did a piece in the dressing room based around transformation which ties in well with my theme of artifice and the project's title, Making faces.

Photo by Craig Berry 

My project has also inspired other creative outlets! Members of City Voices writers group based in Hanley were invited by the museum to produce their own responses to the items from the Making Faces display and also other museum pieces from the same period picked out by myself. The result was a very ecelctic mixture of poetry and short stories. Here's two of my favourites which have really captured the essence of the objects and the era :
Rationed Reflections

Getting ready for a night of theatre,
A film, a dance, a romance.
Take night off from the week
For the war is still fresh in memory
In all young and old
And rationing still carried
But you do your best.

Improvement and alter the gown dress,
With ideas of the society magazines.
Pictures and varied types and varied tips,
From halls of Paris’s fashion houses,
To stars of West End and Hollywood.

A break from that time before,
And now a modern twist,
With compacts of small design,
Fit neatly into the purse,
Nylons from across the Atlantic,
Hard to find at this time.

Picture of the returning sweetheart,
Returned from the continent,
From aiding in Europe.
Soon the alarm will chime,
And it will be theatre time.

Martin Wilkes

A Rare Night Out

She sat before the mirror
Everything was to hand.
Powder puff and perfume
They made her feel so grand.

Her husband had bought tickets
For the Theatre Royal show.
Just a dab of lipstick,
Now she was ready to go.

“The taxi’s here, my darling”
Her husband called to say.
She hurried down to join him
Then they were on their way.

She wore the pearls he’d bought her.
Snd her high heels too.
She felt like a lady
Attending a posh ‘do’.

They didn’t have much money
So treats like these were rare
But oh, how good they made her feel –
Like dancing on air.

P.A. Sinclair © 2011

Friday 18 March 2011

Set up day!

Yesterday was set up day at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke! After months of preparation and research, the collaborative project between myself and the museum has been put on display!

The final display has turned out to be extremely beautiful, thanks to the variety of original vintage pieces found in the museum's archives. It felt really satifying to see them all together for the first time and place them in the display, knowing that not only do they all have part to play in constucting my projects character they are also going to be viewed by the public after spending years in storage.

Each item had to be handled carefully (hence the fetching purple latex gloves). It took a bit of trial and error before everything looked right, but I had a rough idea where I wanted everything to be, plus not everything that had been chosen got used in the end. The space could only hold so many items and also I didn't want to clutter the display and compromise the hidden story with too many objects. 

Some items had been specially selected to be displayed seperately to focus on specific themes. This plinth for instance holds the original programme from the Grand Re-opening of the Theatre Royal from 1951. Around it are items from the character Mrs Brown's outfit.  The  display sets the scene for the rest of the dressing room and helps to illustrate what a posh event the re-opening was to the people of Stoke. I especially enjoyed putting these items together as the final outcome looks so good! (There will be a pair of opera glasses attached to this plinth so that you can zoom in on some of the smaller pieces on top of the dressing table!)

Stoke on Trent Museums What's on guide for February - March 2011

It took months of sourcing for the museum and visits and research for me to get to the day of set up. I've really enjoyed the project; It's allowed me to gain more knowledge about one of my favourite eras. I've learnt about social aspects, fashion, entertaiment and the local history of Stoke in the post war period!

But it doesn't end here! Whilst the project is on display I will be posting Mrs Brown's Diary on a brand new blog: http://mrs-browns-diary.blogspot.com/ . Here you will be able to find out the secret life of Mrs Brown, find out who she is and what the items in her dressing room mean to her.

Plus over the six months the dressing room is on display I will be continuing the project by interacting with the set, photo sessions and some new paintings based around Mrs Brown's story! Make sure you come along to view it all!

The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery,
Bethesda Street, Cultural Quarter,
Stoke-on-Trent, ST1 3DW
Telephone: 01782 232323
Minicom: 01782 232515
E-mail: museums@stoke.gov.uk

  Monday to Saturday 10am - 5pm
              Sunday 2 - 5pm
Admission: FREE.

Friday 4 March 2011

Susie Sequin T shirt

Last year I painted a caricature for burlesque performer Susie Sequin. She has now had my work turned into an exclusive T shirt available in mens and womens sizes and styles! To get your own contact Suzie at misssuziesequin@hotmail.co.uk

Tuesday 1 March 2011

The lost Pleasure Palaces

I've been trying to find information and photos about The Theatre Royal in Hanley for my dressing room project. This collaborative work with Stoke Pottieries Museum and Art Gallery has been interesting for so many reasons; One of my favourite things has been finding out about the history of Stoke, a place one half of my family came from and partly still live.

I've been specifically looking up information about The Theatre Royal as the dressing room set will be focused around it's 'Grand Re-opening' which occured on 14th August 1951. The museum has an original programme from the night which is very impressive, all expensive cream card and gold embossing on it's cover. You can imagine just how exciting and important this night would have been to the people of Stoke. At a time when entertainment was so popular that it wasn't unusual for towns to have several cinemas and theatres, this grand re-opening would have been a social event not to be missed!

The term 're-opening' is important to remember. Only three years earlier a tragic fire destroyed the entire auditorium of the original theatre leaving only the perimeter walls standing. It is said that the Sadler's Wells Ballet Company who were performing there at the time lost almost the entire production; costumes, scenery, props and the whole collection of musical instruments. Whilst the flames consumed backstage the theatre manager, fearing the loss of important documents, dived into the burning building in his pyjamas and overcoat to save them!

It seems it wasn't just the manager who valued the Royal and what it held. In 1950 the people of Stoke handed a petition with over 50,000 signitures to the Minister of Works asking for permission to build a new theatre. This was post war Britian and building of any kind had to be essential to go ahead. However perhaps out of a sense of public feeling, permission was granted and, like the old legend, a new version of the theatre rose from the ashes.

It re-opened with much pomp and circumstance, the residents of Stoke donning their best outfits and evening wear to enjoy the opening ceremony performed by the The Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire. This was followed by a rousing production of 'Annie Get Your Gun' performed by Newcastle's Operatic Society. There were also several messages of good luck from well known stars of the time including Stoke on Trent's own Gertie Gitana, a music hall entertainer and  peoples favourite who was dubbed the Force's sweetheart during the first world war.

A press clipping for the night shows a group including officials and their wives and children standing next to a smiling cowgirl and cowboy holding huge bouquets. With such auspicious celebrations and so much support for the new venture it shocked and confused me to find out that by 1954 audiences had declined to such an extant that the building was sold off to Moss Empires. Perhaps the growing popularity of Television was to blame for this lack of interest?

Like many small town theatres and cinemas the Royal became a bingo hall for a number years. Evidence of simliar fates can be spotted in many locations if you look for them. In my home town for instance, the bingo hall by the bus station was once one of eight cinemas dotted about the little market town in the 1950's, but more of that later.

What I'm after now is a sense of the grandeur of the re-built Theatre Royal. The character, Mrs Brown, whose dressing room I am to construct and who 'attended' the re-opening event will have been caught up in the excitement and would have revelled in the newness of the building. But what was it like?
If you look for the Theatre Royal on the internet you will find a few outside photos of the frontage. I personally like this flyer from the museum archives which has a great sense of glamour and bustle, I imagine if they could have added huge Hollywood style floodlights pointing to the sky they would! I think this may have been before the re-opening as the building now does not have the pointed top just a flat roof, or it could be that during the theatre's varied history the facade changed as much as the place's purpose.


There is a wonderfully helpful facebook group page called 'I loved the Theatre Royal Hanley Stoke on Trent' where I have found several interior shots showing stage productions and backstage areas which have a certain amount of poignancy to them now. The best shots  I've seen for giving an idea of what it was like to be a visitor to the theatre show typical tiered red plush seating, stalls and cirlces and decorated relief work around the stage.

Photo copyright of Ian Grundy
 Photo copyright of Ian Grundy

After all this you might be wondering what happened to the Theatre Royal. Well it's fair to say it  has had a turbulant history what with fires re-openings and bingo, it then lay empty for a year before theatre enthusiasts re-opened it again in 1982. But that wasn't the happy ending the theatre deserved; The building closed again after going into liquidation in 1996 and most of it's original fittings and contents were auctioned off. Then just when it seemed there couldn't be any hope for the Royal in 1997 a millionnaire businessman, Mike Lloyd, bought the theatre and began a 1.2 million refurbishment completely rewiring the venue and replacing the seats in the stalls so that they could be removed for stand up rock and pop concerts. A new crest was even placed over the stage in full glory. The theatre held yet another re-opening that year with comedian Ken Dodd doing the honours. Hooray I hear you cry! But hold on, there's more...

Just when it seemd the Theatre Royal was well and truely back, Mike Lloyds' business empire collapsed along with his ownership of the building. In 2001 the council of Stoke on Trent gave planning permission for the building to be turned into a nightclub. The circle and stage have been destroyed, the seating ripped out and the theatre now functions as a bar for 'Jumpin Jaks'. I feel this is a sorry end for a place which inspired so much hope and promise in it's first reincarnation. What would Mrs Brown think?

Gone but not forgotten: 

During my research into Stoke on Trent's theatre, I couldn't help but be reminded about the rich history of cinemas and theatres around the places I live. As mentioned before these palaces still exist if you only look for them, their ghosts still haunt our towns;

This is Hulme Hippodrome in Manchester which opened in 1901, a theatre set in the square,  similar in design to the Theare Royal in Hanley. It also served it's time as a bingo hall during the 60's and although this magnificent building still stands it now largely unused, lost amongst the redevelopment and new houses of the area. It is on Manchester City Council's 'At Risk' Register.

This is another Theatre Royal, this time situated in Hyde Greater Manchester. This building holds particular personal interest to me as I remember seeing films there when I was little, even then it was mostly empty, but I loved sitting in the circle looking over it's velvet padded edge and feeling the vastness of the place. There is a painting by Harry Rutherford in Hyde Library's Rutherford Gallery which shows the building in it's glory days; chorus girls dancing on the stage and lime lights twinkling. (Is it suprising this my favourite painting in the gallery?).

In 2007 I attended an open day and along with a group of other intrigued people I took a stroll around the theatre's dark empty interior, a very affecting experience for many reasons I think you'll understand. You can take a virtual tour around the building HERE.

The theatre is now listed with plans for surveys towards restoration thanks to the efforts of  The Theatre Royal Onwards Team 

Another  theatre/cinema masquerading as something else. This Quality Save in Hyde used to be The Hippodrome. I've never seen it as anything but a supermarket but it's tell tale shape is a giveaway to a more glamorous past.

You can find out about the history of the building and the family behind it HERE.
It would seem  from looking at these photos that no-one appreciates the pleasure palaces of old these days, but that is where I can give this post a happy ending at last! 
Last year some of you may remember I visited the Plaza in Stockport. A classic example of an entertainment palace from a bygone era, but in this instance, it is a fully working cinema and theatre, showing vintage films and a variety of plays, pantomimes and music events. It is beautiful inside down to the last detail and a real pleasure to be inside. It proves that sometimes the old styles are the best, and sometimes there's nothing we need more then a break from the modern world.