Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Skate at Somerset House

If you're still struggling to get into the festive mood, I have the solution; grab your gloves, sling on a scarf, head off to Somerset House and Skate!

Skate is the annual transformation of the courtyard of Somerset House into one of London's more glamorous outdoor ice rinks. Glide (or wobble) your way across the ice between the majestic, beautifully-lit Somerset House and a huge, twinkling Christmas tree; it's enormous fun, with everyone bundled up against the cold and hanging on to their friends in a vain and desperate attempt to defy gravity.

Ticket prices vary according to date and time (although they go up from 8th December - be quick!) and include skate hire and an hour on the ice. Do make sure to get there early though, as there can be a bit of a queue to pick up the skates and get them on. It's a good idea to either wear or take a pair of thickish socks for best fit and cosy toes; this is ice, after all! You can book online; if there's no availability, nip in early on the day and pick some up from the box office - a small number are held back for sale on site. I haven't been yet, but the club nights sound fabulous; late night sessions with top DJs on the decks and the rink-side lounge open for post-skating mulled wine or cocktails. Full details are on the website here:

If you're looking for something warmer, less energetic and altogether more indulgent, just soak up the atmosphere as a spectator for a while then amble off indoors into Somerset House's pop-up shopping event, the Christmas Arcade. Gorgeous hats from Christy's, covetable jewellery from Tatty Devine, yummy treats from Hope and Greenwood, cool British fashion and fabulous ceramic pieces, cushions and suchlike for your home.

Wander round with a mince pie and some mulled wine or hot chocolate and start your Christmas wish list off with a little luxury. Go on, you deserve it - after all, you've been good all year, right?

Yours, chilling out with Twitter star Skate Penguin,

Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Alternative London tour

Bored of expensive, uninspiring tours? Think tours are for tourists? Forget the freezing open-top buses, the droning guides shoving through crowds with their umbrellas aloft and the same dry old monologues about Big Ben or Tower Bridge; what if a tour could give you an insight into today's real and living London, the chance to discover the East End's most incredible street art alongside enthusiastic local guides - often street artists themselves - and even the chance to (legally) try it for yourself?

Alternative London (beware of bandwagon imitators) offers pay-what-you-like walking tours as well as great value bike tours and tours with hands-on workshops, making this a really different and affordable London experience. I took my teenage niece with her mum for a birthday treat and it opened our eyes to a whole range of incredible art in the maze of East London back streets.

Our guide, street artist Josh Jeavons, was fabulous - friendly, knowledgeable and really happy to explain how graffiti and street art began, how the pieces were created, what kind of techniques were used, and the individual artists' backgrounds and inspirations. http://joshjeavons.co.uk/ Here is just a taste of the things we saw and learned on our day.

Cranio is a Brazilian artist from São Paulo, in town for a recent exhibition at the Red Bull Studios. His distinctive character paintings highlight the tension between the indigenous people of Brazil and the commercial pressures that are leading to deforestation, seriously endangering the rainforest. He was one of the first artists to help decorate the new Alternative London bus, which is the tour company's headquarters and their workshop - a very cool place to work on your stencil skills!

Artists like Mobstr and Ben Eine focus more on typographical pieces; Ben Eine is probably most well-known for his transformation of the shutters in Middlesex Street with huge brightly-coloured letters - or perhaps for the fact that David Cameron gave Barack Obama one of his pieces as a presidential gift.
We saw his fabulous monochromatic Anti Anti Anti graffiti in Ebor Street; apparently the morning after he painted this he was asked if he wanted to paint something on the other side of the street, this time with permission. Keen to have made his mark on the whole street, he painted the contrasting Pro Pro Pro in bright circus font along the opposite wall.

Mobstr specialises in stencilled messages which challenge the inexplicable love of those in authority for a dreary blank wall. The eternal nemesis of the street artist, council employees will post warning notices of prosecution - hence Mobstr's retort 'Didn't Get Arrested' - and will paint over existing art with neutral-coloured paint, known as 'buffing'. Often they only cover as far as they can easily reach, leaving a far uglier  dull wall with the remains of the art still visible at the top; this prompted Mobstr to stencil the taunt 'Buff This . . . And This' high up on a wall in New Inn Yard. So far, they haven't.

I guess no London street art tour would be complete without a Banksy or two - nowadays they are covered with Plexiglass. This one has an Anthony Lister version right next to it, the Australian artist making his point by adding 'Lister is over stencils'.

Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop collaborator Shepard Fairey (for more on this, see my August blog post on Mr Brainwash) also figures on the tour; we saw his 'Shoplifters Welcome' indictment of corporate greed dominating a huge wall space.

I could go on, but you know what? Book yourself on the tour and find out for yourself. The workshop option is fabulous as after the tour you get the chance to create your own stencil and/or wield a can freehand, spray-painting your own design onto pieces of board, or the bar.

Here's my London skyline . . .

. . . and my niece's finished piece for her  to take home. I'm setting up a board on Pinterest (check it out with the link at the top of the page) with more pictures and artists but street art is ephemeral, so your tour could look totally different. I'm already booking my next one for a couple of months' time; maybe I'll see you there. Trust me, you'll love it. http://www.alternativeldn.co.uk/

Yours, loving streets as the new galleries,

Girl About Town xx

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The V&A Café

The V&A Café looks like any other museum or gallery café at first glance; brightly lit, bustling staff clearing trays, signposted stations for hot or cold food, coffee or cakes - and all heavingly busy. A modern, functional place to take the weight off and fortify yourself with tea and cake before venturing back out into the world's greatest museum of art and design (their words, but does any other venue even come close?). Now take a look at the suite of three interlinked rooms off to the side and it's like stepping back in time; together these rooms make up the world's very first museum restaurant and it is a seriously impressive setting.

The Refreshment Rooms at the Victoria and Albert Museum were intended as a showcase for contemporary design and craftsmanship and are a wonderfully Victorian mix of the ornate and the practical. The main central section is the Gamble Room, designed by James Gamble, Godfrey Sykes and Reuben Townroe. Originally the main doors to this room were directly opposite the museum entrance so this would have been the first room visitors saw; even by Victorian standards this must have seemed imposingly grand. Look more closely; the ceiling is enamelled iron and both the walls and the huge columns are completely covered with ceramic tiles, making this most majestic and opulent of dining rooms completely washable and practically fireproof.

Mottoes espousing the joys of food and drink adorn the beautiful stained glass windows and the frieze is a quotation from Ecclesiastes II:24: 'There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy the good of his labour.' Hard to argue with that.

The Morris Room (the Green Dining Room) was the first major commission for William Morris's company Morris Marshall and Faulkner. The dado panels based on signs of the zodiac were painted by Edward Burne-Jones, who also designed the stained glass windows. The influence of William Morris and his pattern-making is most recognisable in the plasterwork leaves and flowers on the walls (although if you are a Morris fan, the rest of the museum has plenty to offer). This room, although beautiful, has a more restrained, quiet feel.

The Poynter room (the Grill Room) designed by Edward Poynter has a homely cosiness to it, with blue Dutch tiles and wooden panelling. The large tiled panels of the months and seasons were actually painted by students from the ladies' tile-painting class at the Schools of Design; this was very much in keeping with V&A Founding Director Henry Cole's  radical idea of involving students and the public in creating this public space. Giving such an important commission to female students would have caused quite a stir in Victorian times.

The beautiful iron stove where a chef in whites would have grilled steaks and chops to order is still in place; the V&A website has sample menus from 1867 - both first and second class - which include options such as jugged hare for 1/6 (i.e. one shilling and sixpence, or 18p) or, from the second class menu, stewed rabbit for 10d (ten pence). That may sound like a bargain until you consider that an unskilled labourer's wage was about a pound a week.

Nowadays the catering side is handled by Benugo, so expect freshly-prepared basics and great cakes (although as everything is made fresh on the day, quality and availability can inevitably dip if you arrive too near closing time). I hear the cream tea is good, so that's my next visit sorted.

Yours, scratching the surface of London history just for you,

Girl About Town xx