We have just spent a thoroughly enjoyable weekend in Oxford with Steve and Heather Rayner. We drove up on Saturday morning in time for a delicious home-cooked chicken and vegetable soup courtesy of Steve before heading out for the Ashmolean Museum to see the current William Blake exhibition “Apprentice and Master”.
Whether one likes Blake and his highly personal, visionary style or not this exhibition provides an excellent perspective on his development from an apprentice print-maker to a fully fledged master of, and innovator in, the art and techniques of print-making. Some of the works on show are so amazingly intricate and complex it is not surprising that he took as long as two years to complete some of them. Moreover one cannot help but be impressed by the strength of purpose he displayed in pursuing such a unique vision that in many ways ran so counter to prevailing tastes.
I was reminded of the Rowlandson prints at the Holborn, not for their content, but for the business of print-making as a commercial activity. Blake made his living mainly from commissions and often these were for copies of major paintings.
Unfortunately our pleasure in the exhibition was somewhat reduced by the very low lighting necessitated by the fragility of many of the works, the all too common over-heating of the gallery, which was like a hothouse, and the large number of other visitors. We had taken advice to arrive early, that is around 1.00 pm, and escaped a long queue, but were still competing to get a close look at many of the pictures and display cabinets. On exiting there was a queue all the way up the stairs to level 3 waiting to gain access.
From the Blake there was no time to be lost. We next headed straight for the MAO – Modern Art Oxford – to view an unlikely combination of William Morris and Andy Warhol. These are not artists that one would see together very often but it actually worked very well indeed. Warhols’ repetitive screen prints had genuine echoes of Morris’ repeating patterns and seen side by side complemented each other.
No time to waste, we returned to the house for a quick rest, cup of tea and Choco Leibniz before heading out for dinner and theatre – as one does. Loch Fynne fish restaurant was the venue for the former and the Oxford Playhouse for the latter.
The play was a student production of “Noises Off” by Michael Frayn, a play that I had seen over thirty years ago at the Savoy Theatre, London when it was first produced. I enjoyed then and did again. The scenario is a small touring repetory company staging a dreadful, creaking farce. Act 1 shows us the dress rehearsal, Act II is the same play several weeks into the tour from behind the set as the performances gradually disintegrate and the tensions between the actors mount climaxing in Act III in which we see the play again from the front of the set as the production finally collapses into total disarray.
The stage “business” is incredibly intricate and fast-paced risking actual disarray in the performances. The student actors carried it off very well indeed and it met with great approval by the largely student audience most of whom would not have been born when the play was first performed.
On Sunday morning we managed to make the most of the weak sunshine struggling through the cloud cover to walk in the University Park before strolling around Keble College of which Steve is a Fellow. The college is a fairly extraordinary mid-Victorian Gothic fantasy in brick. I like it.
The only disappointment being the hideous new glass structure behind the old buildings:
What were they thinking?