The man who built Britain’s first skyscraper

In 2011 Britain’s first skyscraper was finally given Grade I listing. The citation for 55 Broadway — the Gotham City-ish home of Transport for London, which sprouts up from St James’s Park Station — said that the building was important in a number of ways: its architect Charles Holden, the designer of Senate House and a range of breakthrough modernist Tube stations in the 1930s, was increasingly recognised as major. The building’s scale and structure were pioneering for London in 1929. And the sculpture on its otherwise plain façades was by important artists including Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and the young Henry Moore (his first work on a public building

You’ll be blubbing over a wooden boulder at David Nash’s show at Towner Art Gallery

Call me soppy, but when the credits rolled on ‘Wooden Boulder’, a film made by earth artist David Nash over 25 years, I was blinking back tears. Funny what the mind will make human. Within a few minutes I started to think of Nash’s boulder, hewn from a storm-struck oak in the Ffestiniog valley in Wales, as ‘the hero of our story’. A hefty hero, weighing half a tonne, but buoyant. In October 1978, Nash launched the boulder into the Bronturnor stream near his studio at Capel Rhiw in the slate-mining village of Blaenau Ffestiniog in Snowdonia. For 25 years, switching from crackling film to high-def digital, Nash filmed the

A cast of Antony Gormley? Or a pair of giant conkers? Gormley’s RA show reviewed

While Sir Joshua Reynolds, on his plinth, was looking the other way, a little girl last Saturday morning was trying to prise a littler sculpture from the pavement of the Royal Academy’s courtyard. For all its tininess — from a distance the sculpture’s curvy lumps, 12 x 28 x 17cm, resemble horse droppings a security guard might dig into their rose bed — she couldn’t shift it. ‘Iron Baby’ (1999) is a solid iron cast made by Sir Antony Gormley of his six-day- old daughter abased before the Enlightenment temple of art, buttocks facing Piccadilly in eloquent critique. But for the Instagramming hordes, you might step over her heedlessly on

On photography, shrines and Maradona: Geoff Dyer’s Neapolitan pilgrimage

At the Villa Pignatelli in Naples there is an exhibition by Elisa Sighicelli: photographs of bits and pieces of antiquity from, among other places, the city’s Archaeological Museum. Put like that it doesn’t sound so interesting but the results are stunning. Walking through the Archaeological Museum after seeing the exhibition it was difficult to discover the original objects from which Sighicelli’s samples were taken. One instance, a tight crop of fingers pressing into a calf, is from a highly elaborate, much restored and augmented sculpture with so much going on — a naked swirl of bodies, a rearing horse, a sympathetic doggy — it’s hard to imagine how she found

Why was Sigmund Freud so obsessed with Egypt?

Twenty years ago, I visited the ancient Egyptian city of Amarna with a party of American journalists. Even in those days this place, near Asyut on the Middle Nile, was regarded as a dodgy destination for western tourists. As a tribute to the value of an entire CBS television crew as a terrorist target, we were accompanied by a squad of heavily armed, black-clad Egyptian special forces. But the sense of daring adventure was dented when, shortly after arriving at the ruins, we were joined by a couple of intrepid Germans who had come in a taxi. The Germanic world has long been fascinated by Amarna and its ruler, the

What’s in a name? | 8 August 2019

Perhaps we should blame Vasari. Ever since the publication of his Lives of the Artists, and to an ever-increasing extent, the world of art has been governed by the star system. In other words, the first question likely to be asked about a painting or sculpture is whodunit? And if the answer turns out to be, not Leonardo da Vinci — as has been suggested in the case of the controversial ‘Salvator Mundi’ — then the price tag becomes enormously smaller. Does this matter? Artist Unknown, a little exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, investigates the case of the anonymous work. This draws on the rich resources of the museums of

Let there be light | 2 May 2019

Henry Moore was, it seems, one of the most notable fresh-air fiends in art history. Not only did he prefer to carve stone outside — working in his studio felt like being in ‘prison’ — but he felt the sculpture came out better that way too, in natural light. What’s more, he believed that the finished works looked at their best in the open air. This last idea is tested in a new exhibition, Henry Moore at Houghton Hall: Nature and Inspiration — and it turns out that the artist was absolutely right. This — the latest in an enterprising series of shows at this north Norfolk mansion — is

Sublime salvage

There was a moment more than 20 years ago when Bankside Power Station was derelict but its transformation into Tate Modern had not yet begun. I remember thinking, on a visit to the site, how beautiful and impressive the huge rusting generators looked — like enormous real-life sculptures by Anthony Caro. Nothing that has since been exhibited in what came to be called the Turbine Hall has looked quite so strong. A quarter of a century later, the artist Mike Nelson has reversed the process — not at Tate Modern, but at Tate Britain where he has filled the Duveen Galleries with massive pieces of redundant machinery: cement mixers, engine

The shock of the nude

Early in the 16th century, Fra Bartolomeo painted an altarpiece of St Sebastian for the church of San Marco in Florence. Though stuck full of arrows, the martyr was, according to Vasari, distinctly good-looking in this picture: ‘sweet in countenance, and likewise executed with corresponding beauty of person’. By and by the friars of San Marco discovered through the confessional that this image was giving rise to ‘light and evil thoughts’ among women in the congregation. It was removed and eventually sold to the King of France (who was presumably less bothered by that sort of thing). So even during the heyday of Michelangelo and Raphael depictions of human bodies

Dream on | 14 March 2019

Art movements come and go but surrealism, in one form or another, has always been with us. Centuries before Freud’s scientific observation that the stuff of dreams will out, artists were painting it. The English have never been much cop at surrealism — too buttoned up; the Celts are better. The Scottish painters Alan Davie and John Bellany, jointly celebrated in Newport Street Gallery’s latest show, Cradle of Magic, were both surrealists in different ways. Both attended Edinburgh College of Art — Davie in the late 1930s, Bellany in the early 1960s — and both came out fighting in a punchy style of painting combining expressionistic brushwork with strong colour.

Privates on parade | 28 February 2019

‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’ If there’s an exception to prove Shaw’s rule, it’s Phyllida Barlow. The 40 years the sculptor spent teaching at the Slade, where her pupils included Rachel Whiteread, have not only left her creative energies intact, but completely failed to keep a lid on them. After turning Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries into a cross between a lumberyard and an enchanted forest in 2014, then filling the British Pavilion to bursting point at the 2017 Venice Biennale, the septuagenarian who can conjure a sculptural wonderland from the contents of your local branch of Travis Perkins has been let loose on the Royal Academy’s Gabrielle

Hunter, scholar, boaster, dreamer

The Assyrians placed sculptures of winged human-headed bulls (lamassus) at the entrances to their capital at Nineveh, in modern Mosul, to ward off evil. The mighty lamassu to the right of the Nergal Gate had been on guard for some 2,700 years when Isis vandals took a drill to it in 2015 and blew away its face. Today a copy, crafted out of date syrup cans, stands on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. It wears the oblong beard and proud look of the Assyrian kings. The original sculpture dated to the time of Sennacherib, who ruled Assyria from 705 to 681 BC, and transformed Nineveh into a magnificent metropolis.

Brought to book | 15 November 2018

‘The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death we are either drowned or killed.’ So wrote the British monk Gildas in his 6th-century proto-polemic On the Ruin of Britain, recording the arrival of the hated ‘Germans’ to the island. Bad news for the Britons, but fantastic for visitors to the British Library, now running perhaps the most significant exhibition of recent times, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. Historians dislike the term ‘Dark Ages’, but by any measurement western Europe saw a collapse in living standards, literacy, population, trade and significant cultural output from 500 ad. Yet that only makes the flame

Doors of perception

A reflection on still water was perhaps the first picture that Homo sapiens ever encountered. The importance of mirrors in the history of art has been underestimated. Alberti, Vasari and Leonardo recommended them as a tool for painters. Van Eyck delighted in them. Caravaggio had one in his studio. And they haven’t stopped fascinating artists. Shape Shifters, the new exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, might as well have been entitled ‘Modern Art through the Looking Glass’. Consequently, you see yourself all over the show, generally in surprising forms and positions. Early on, for example, you come across Anish Kapoor’s ‘Non-Object (Door)’ (2008), a rectangular block of highly polished stainless steel,

The play’s the thing | 9 August 2018

Nothing was so interesting to Yves Klein as the void. In 1960 he leapt into it for a photograph — back arched, chin raised, spread-eagled. The same year, he took out a patent for International Klein Blue (IKB), a colour inspired by the limitlessness of the sky itself. He even went so far as to stage an exhibition of white walls and an empty cabinet. If there is a less appropriate place to exhibit his work than the lavishly adorned Blenheim Palace, I can’t think of it. Klein was born in Nice in 1928 and learned judo as well as art. In his late teens he visited the Scrovegni Chapel

Beasts from the East

One area of life in which globalism certainly rules is that of contemporary art. Installation, performance, the doctrine of Marcel Duchamp, conceptualism — nowadays these flourish throughout the world and nowhere more so than in the Far East. Plenty of evidence for this is on view in an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery by the South Korean artist Lee Bul. But though the idioms are familiar, the works themselves can seem outlandish to an occidental eye. Just inside the door you are confronted by a sculpture entitled ‘Monster: Pink’ (2011). It looks like one of those oddly shaped vegetables that are sometimes displayed at village fêtes — but running riot

Out of this world | 5 July 2018

In G.F. Watts’s former sculpture studio in the Surrey village of Compton, a monstrous presence has interposed itself between the dusty plaster models of ‘Alfred, Lord Tennyson’ and ‘Physical Energy’. Standing 14ft tall, the brightly painted soldier with fez and sabre is a replica of a colossal puppet made by James Henry Pullen (1835–1916) while an inmate of the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots in Redhill. So terrifying was Pullen’s ‘Giant’ to the local children that it was confined to quarters after causing a rout at a Guy Fawkes procession. Its maker was inside, operating a system of pulleys and levers that batted the eyelids, waggled the ears, rattled the

Roll out the barrels

It’s not a wrap. This is the first thing to note about the huge trapezoid thing that has appeared, apparently floating, on the Serpentine Lake. Many of the projects by the artists who conceived it, Christo and his late wife and collaborator Jeanne-Claude, have involved bundling something up in a temporary mantle. The items thus packaged over the years include a naked woman (in Düsseldorf, 1964), the Pont Neuf (1985) and, famously, in 1995, the Reichstag. This London work, however, is the product of an equally long-running obsession with the barrels in which oil is stored and transported. At first, and second, glance, these objects lack charm. Nonetheless, the youthful

Antony Gormley

Antony Gormley has replicated again. Every year or so a new army of his other selves — cast, or these days 3-D fabricated, in bronze, iron, steel — emerge from his workshop. Some lucky clones find themselves in wild and beautiful places; others are trapped in private collections. The latest clutch, generation 2018, find themselves in the new galleries at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (until 27 August), one sticking out horizontally from a wall, another, an airy stack of steel bars, staring down through a window into town. It’s called ‘Subject’, this work (also the title of the exhibition), and Gormley’s intention is that it acts as an invitation to each

The good, the bad and the ugly | 21 June 2018

Some disasters could not occur in this age of instant communication. The first world war is a case in point: 9.7 million soldiers died, 19,240 British on 1 July, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, alone. If all that had been seen on social mediaand rolling news threads, public opinion would have shifted immediately. A hundred years ago, however, the sheer awfulness of what was happening took more time to sink in. Aftermath, an exhibition at Tate Britain, deals not so much with the art of the war itself as with the shocked and grieving era that followed the cataclysmic conflict: post-war art. The horrors of