Tribute to Queen Elizabeth II

Last weekend I changed my plans to go for a walk outside London and instead headed to Buckingham Palace to observe the mourning and tributes to the recently deceased Queen Elizabeth II (1926 to 2022).

I came out of Charing Cross tube and walked across Trafalgar Square and along the Mall only to find the area around St James’s Palace fenced off and filled with a crowd liberally sprinkled with what looked like mostly foreign TV presenters talking earnestly into cameras on tripods. According to a security guard I got chatting to, the crowd was there because there were rumours that a car might or might not enter or exit St James’s Palace and might or might not contain a Royal of some degree. Last Saturday we knew Charles and Camilla were at Balmoral so it was puzzling that a crowd of two or 300 had gathered on such a remote offchance.

There may well be a madness of crowds (I think of Ian Gilmour’s enjoyable book, ‘Riots, Rising And Revolution: Governance and Violence in Eighteenth Century England’, and all the decisive journées of the French Revolution). But the hysterical outbreaks of mob violence maybe have a kind of milder cousin – the curiosity of crowds. A couple of people stop to look at something happening in a shop window. A few more join in to see what they’re looking at. A crowd gathers. People on the edge of the crowd have no idea what they’re doing, but it’s something to do / something must be going on / they were curious to see what was happening.

People at the floral tributes to the Queen in Green Park, London

Anyway, the short cut through to the Mall was closed so I was forced to walk up St James’s Street to Piccadilly and then along the frontage of the Ritz to the tube station entrance to Green Park. There was a big crowd and entrance and exit to the tube barriers were separated by a crash barrier. I asked the security guy nicely and he let me slip through and 30 seconds later I was amid the crowds walking up from the tube station into Green Park.

It wasn’t football crowd density but it was very packed. I noticed the number of people carrying bouquets, hundreds of people. Almost immediately I heard one of many crowd stewards yelling through a megaphone that both the Mall and Constitution Hill were fenced off with crash barriers and so inaccessible. I went up to speak to her. I like chatting to officials. I was friendly and sympathetic but she didn’t need much provocation let out a string of complaints about the crowds who were all heading gently downhill through the park bearing their bouquets intending to put them against the railings of Buckingham Palace as per tributes to Princess Diana (1997) and the Queen Mother (2002). Then they discovered the Mall was completely locked off by crash barriers, turned around and began drifting back up the hill, bumping into the continuing crowds heading down, creating an entertaining mix of confusion.

A fallen tree festooned with floral tributes to Queen Elizabeth

The steward was trying to tell everyone there was no way through to the Palace to lay tributes against the fence and to direct everyone with flowers towards a special Floral Tribute Area half way down the gently grassy slope. So I headed in that direction and discovered quite a long queue because the Tribute Area, also, had (relatively simple) crash barriers around it, enclosing an area smaller than a football pitch and roughly almond shape. People were waiting patiently in line bearing their bouquets, mainly families with young children or older couples. Not many teenagers, some Asians, amid the crowds I saw one young black woman.

A hand-written acrostic tribute to the Queen

Once inside what immediately became clear was the utterly amateur nature of nearly all the tributes. People had written them themselves in a wide variety of styles, some with stylish scripts, some on banner shaped long placards, but more on humble sheets of A4 paper. A huge number were obviously from children, most as individuals but some obviously organised by teachers and signed off as coming from class so and so at such and such primary school. Looked like many infant and junior school teachers had incorporated the activity into the curriculum.

Thank you note to the Queen

It wasn’t the flowers, it was the sincerity of so many of these hand-written tributes which, after a while, began to move me. It was the feeling of a huge love, a nationwide feeling of love and emotion uniting so many people, so many millions of strangers from all round the country brought together by strong emotion, sorrow and respect.

Row of floral tributes to the Queen

Many of the flowers had been arranged in long narrow rows or banks and the sheer volume of bouquets, notes and gifts laid out like this was very moving. But I was struck by the way some people had also been festooning trees, laying bouquets against their trunks and attaching notes to their branches.

This struck me as unusual, not in the English tradition. The accidental presence of a Japanese woman in this photo made me wonder what countries it comes from. Is it English? I don’t know enough to decide, but I love trees, we need trees so there was a kind of respect for nature or involving nature in the mourning process which I liked. And also the idea of the tributes hanging in the air, easier to read but somehow closer to the sky, more airborne. Lots of ideas and images and symbols.

A tree in Green Park decorated at the roots with bouquets with numerous written tributes attached to branches

Written tributes everywhere but also…a surprising number of cuddly toys. There were two types: Corgi dolls and Paddington dolls; when I say dolls I mean more like bears, the kind of toy bears my children had when they were small, fake fur and cuddly.

Toy corgi among tributes to the Queen

In an as yet relatively untouched area of grass I came across a bloke and his family creating an installation. They’d already used stems from bouquets to spell out ER with some ribbons between the letters to make a heart shape. Now the bloke and his 2 junior school kids were gathering brown leaves to make a frame, to turn it into a picture or a 3D card. A bit overwhelmed by the atmosphere of love and friendliness and openness, I went up and asked him if I could help. ‘Join in, mate,’ he said, so I spent the next few minutes grabbing handfuls of brown fallen leaves off the grass and adding them to the frame.

Ad hoc tribute made of leaves

While I was helping, a small crowd gathered and the bloke addressed them suggesting they write a big THANK YOU with leaves. I didn’t want to get too involved, I knew I’d start to take it over and direct things; I very much wanted to only make a fleeting contribution and move on, leaving space for others.

But it set me thinking about all the installation art I’ve seen in the last 40 years, much of it accompanied by high minded statements from the artist or the curators talking about installing art in places where it can be enjoyed by ‘the people’ or about removing the barrier between art and ‘the people’, and so on. Well, here was a bloke and his family spontaneously creating something lovely, full of love and respect, and just one of thousands writing messages, doing drawings, hanging notes in trees, arranging their bouquets just so. I’m not saying it was ‘art’, as such, but it felt like it came from the same urge to create and beautify and say something, that art comes from.

Monarchy and republicanism

I’m not that interested in the arguments for or against the monarchy. When I went to university I discovered that 100% of the really vehement republicans I met had been to public school and that put me off republicanism in the same way that a lot of public school socialists put me off the Labour Party. It doesn’t strike me as being a ‘national debate’ but a squabble among the ruling class, between Rupert who attended Eton and the Guards, and his wildcat sister Polly who became a webel at university.

At university many a public school liberal told me how we will only get equality in this country when we abolish the monarchy because it stands at the apex of the entire system of privilege, power and money. Sometimes I’d reply that it would be easier to scrap public schools and thus hamper the perpetuation of an elite of boys and girls who have been bought privileged life chances and, very often, entrées to positions of power, by their parents’ and grandparents’ money.

But the reality is that neither of these things will happen. No political party seriously intends to abolish private schools which are, in my opinion, the single most important means by which the ruling class of Britain not only preserves itself, but is flexible enough to incorporate a steady flow of new money and new talent into its ranks. If you can afford it, you’re in (to the schools, and then to the ruling elite across numerous industries and institutions).

But back to the monarchy, and opinion polls suggest support for abolishing the monarchy and creating a republic fluctuates between 15% and 25% of the adult population. Call it 20%. Therefore any political party which puts republicanism in its manifesto automatically alienates 70 to 80% of the electorate, which is why even Jeremy Corbyn, the most ‘radical’ leader of the Labour party in a generation, realised it was not a battle worth fighting. If he wouldn’t take it on, no politician will take it on.

The argument that the monarchy stands at the apex of the system of privilege and inequality which holds Britain back, prevents the UK from fully modernising, has a number of counter-arguments:

1. America is a republic, has been since its inception. Would you say America is a paragon of fairness and equality? No. It appears to become more unequal and fractured with every year. How about republican France, dominated by a technocratic elite? Or Italy, just welcoming a semi-fascistic party into power. Or Russia? Simply being a republic doesn’t guarantee fairness and equality, far from it. Lots of other political and social elements are needed, too.

2. If we get rid of a monarchy we would almost certainly create a head of state, usually a president, to replace it. You only have to say the name Donald Trump to realise that having a president, elected by universal suffrage, does not solve your problem. If we did create a republic and have an elected head of state, what’s the betting the first one would be Boris Johnson who, despite all his lies, corruption and incompetence, remains surprisingly popular? You only have to consider the existence of President trump and President Putin or the possibility of President Johnson, to realise that straight constitutional swap for republicanism might be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.

3. Conversely, it is proveable that nominally monarchical states can demonstrate a high degree of fairness, equality and progressive values. Left Liberals generally praise the equality and liberal values of the Scandinavian societies, Denmark, Sweden and Norway – yet all three are monarchies.

In other words, being a monarchy doesn’t prevent the development of a liberal egalitarian society (Scandinavia) while overthrowing a monarchy and instituting a republic does not guarantee equality and fairness (America, France).

There’s the economic argument: republicans argue that the monarchy costs the country a fortune, that the monarch owns a grotesque amount of land and assets which could be redistributed to help the poor, and so on. Monarchists tend to emphasise the earnings the monarchy brings in through tourism and the export of prestige brands with the royal seal of approval etc around the world.

There’s a politico-psychological argument: republicans argue that the existence of monarchy keeps Britain in arrested development and infantilises citizens who compete for a shake of the royal hand or the soft feel of the sword on their shoulder as they’re knighted. Conversely, monarchists point to the enormous achievements of schemes set up and sponsored by the Royals, including the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and the Princes Trust, which have done more than any government ‘Back to Work’ scheme to help the poor, the working class, the young. Republicans may concede their effectiveness but say the same kind of thing could perfectly well be run by an elected government, but could it? The actual governments we’ve had in recent times, the governments of Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss?

Monarch or no monarch, Britain would still be lumbered with the blinkered, ideologically driven, heartless and incompetent politicians we always seem to end up with.

Rebalancing the British economy

In any case, the real economic and social problems facing this country eclipse squabbling about the head of state. I am strongly influenced by Correlli Barnett’s two histories of wartime and post-war Britain:

These analyse the deep structural issue in the British economy, namely that we built towns and cities around the industries of the industrial revolution which have now disappeared. Towns and cities built around coal mining, shipbuilding, steel or car manufacturing, have all lost their raison d’etres. If you add in the fishing ports all up the east coast of England you arrive at a list of the Red Wall constituencies which have suffered terrible decline over the past 50 years, where high unemployment sits alongside poor educational achievement.

At the moment the British economy is underpinned by the cash cow of the City of London, engaged in money laundering for the Russian mafia, casino gambling on products it barely understands (see the 2008 financial crash), a nexus for the international insurance industry. All this is a result of the historical ‘accident’ of Britain building a worldwide empire and adapting more flexible and innovative financial systems than its rivals (France or Holland). However this is a fading asset. Brexit is just the latest blow which will encourage some of these financial services to relocate away from London.

So my belief is that the real challenge facing the country is to do with rebalancing the economy in such a way as to bring worthwhile jobs to those northern and eastern towns and cities, to create new industries which provide employment and give a sense of worth and dignity in people’s lives. Maybe some of this would come in the form of a renewables industry, green industries, with factories creating wind turbines, solar panels, home insulation products, carefully located in those towns. Maybe a focus on computer skills required in the 21st century digital economy by setting up centres of digital education, training and excellence in the north.

I’m no expert but it’s clear that what the country needs is an intelligent long-term plan to transform the lives and futures of its people. At the moment we have a government which combines fine talk of levelling up with no actual, tangible plans for how to achieve it, while on the ground most people are experiencing a series of crises which seem to make life relentlessly harder and harder, with the prospect ahead that things are only going to get worse, a lot worse.

You can see why people, ordinary people, living out there in Hartlepool and Ipswich and Devizes, far from the highfalutin’ intellectual arguments of the London commentariat, really need something to believe in. You can see how the Queen, quietly going about her duties with unhesitating commitment and optimism, gave many people an often forgotten, but always present, underpinning of continuity and hope, confidence that things would be alright if she was there.

Her death represents or symbolises many things, to many people, as I saw in Green Park. But for some I think it’s one more nail driven into the coffin, one more element contributing to a sense of national decline and the collapse of old certainties.

Likely prognosis

In reality, nothing will change because nothing in this country ever does. At least that’s how it often feels. Republicans hope that Charles will so miserably fail to fill his mother’s shoes that their cause will gain strength. It’s possible, but I doubt it. To even begin to get the republican ball rolling you’d have to persuade the crowds I saw in Green Park and all the adults and children who have written tributes to the Queen that they are wrong, that it is emotionally immature and politically backward to care so much for a monarch. That doesn’t seem very likely.

British Republicans can make all the logical arguments they like – but you can’t disprove love, the love I saw pouring over Green Park, and that’s what they’d have to do.

Punk queen

After a surprisingly emotional morning, I walked to the west end of Green Park and then undertook the long polluted trek along Grosvenor Place, at the rear of Buckingham Palace, down towards Victoria. South of Buckingham Palace is a warren of streets, many of them with large imposing modern buildings, many of them housing government departments. I used to work in one, the Department for International Development which the Conservatives, as they always do, have now merged with the Foreign Office. Like all big modern buildings these have service bays, scrappy concrete yards where lorries can deliver essential goods.

In a concrete cul-de-sac formed by steps up from such a bay (you can see cabling coming out of the wall at the bottom left of this photo, and general litter on the floor) someone had gone to a lot of trouble to create the following massive spray-painting-cum-collage of the Queen.

This too is a tribute, a backhanded testament to the extraordinary achievement of Queen Elizabeth, the solid, reliable, good humoured, long serving, loyal, loving and patriotic backdrop to the lives of everyone who’s lived in this country for the past 70 years. Even our rebellion was coloured by her.

Collage graffiti on a concrete wall near Buckingham Palace

Pushing paper contemporary drawing from 1970 to now @ the British Museum

‘Learn to draw, learn to see.’
(Established artist Eugène Boudin to the up-and-coming young Monet)

A travelling show

The British Museum houses the national collection of Western prints and drawings, in the same way as the National Gallery and Tate hold the national collection of paintings. It is one of the top three collections of its kind in the world, and houses approximately 50,000 drawings and over two million prints dating from the beginning of the fifteenth century up to the present day.

Of these 50,000 drawings, some 1,500 are by contemporary or modern artists. From this 1,500, the museum has worked with curators from other galleries around the country to make a selection of 56 drawings for this exhibition, which:

  1. highlight the range and diversity of contemporary drawings
  2. are designed to show how the entire concept of ‘drawing’ has been subjected to radical experiments and redefinitions during this key period, 1970 to the present

The idea is that after a couple of months on display in London, the exhibition will travel to the partner museums around the country, which will add works from their own collections to the display, thus creating a unique combination at each venue.

You can see how this will a) make the works accessible to audiences round the country and b) create a network of curators who are interested and informed about drawings, which could lead to who knows what consequences in the future.

What is a drawing?

Here’s one of the first works you encounter, Untitled by Grayson Perry, featuring an early outing by his transvestite alter-ego, Clare (note what seems to be a dog’s tail coming out the back of her skirt). So far, so gender-bending.

What’s really going on here, though, is the extreme stress Perry is applying to the concept of the ‘drawing’. It clearly contains elements of collage, with stereotypical photos from magazines tacked onto it, plus the diagonal colour washes and diagonal bands of glitter. Is it a drawing at all?

Untitled (1984) by Grayson Perry © The Trustees of the British Museum

That is the question which echoes through the rest of the show. Some works are old-style figurative depictions of some real object in the world, for example this attractive portrait by Jan Vanriet (although I was a little puzzled whether this was a drawing or a watercolour. Is it a drawing which has been watercoloured? Is that still a drawing?)

Ruchla by Jan Vanriet (2011) © The Trustees of the British Museum

It turns out to be one of a series developed from portrait photos of the Jews deported from one particular location in Belgium to concentration camps where they were all murdered. Kind of changes your attitude to the image, doesn’t it?

Drawing also contains the genre of satire or caricature or political cartoon, here represented by Philip Guston‘s unforgiving image of American president Richard Nixon, whose face seems to have turned into a penis and scrotum. To his left what I initially thought was his body is in fact a caricature of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was addicted to playing golf, hence the clutter of golf clubs and balls. And the crab-like glasses on the right reference Nixon’s adviser Henry Kissinger.

Untitled by Philip Guston (1971) © The Trustees of the British Museum

(This caricature is a reminder to younger viewers that there’s nothing new about Donald Trump: America has a long, long, long track record of scumbag, murdering, lying presidents. Why, then, do the arbiters of culture give America so much weight and respect?)

And then there are what you could call artistic ‘deformations’ of real objects, specifically the human body, subjected to stylisation, morphing into abstract patterns, as in this drawing by Gwen Hardie, the tiggerish striping of the torso counterpointed by the stylisation of what are presumably female sex organs, the leaning-back posture a cross between a cave painting and a Henry Moore sculpture. Gwen is a woman artist ‘who has a longstanding preoccupation with the body and its perception’.

Untitled (1962) by Gwen Hardie © The Trustees of the British Museum

A striking ‘deformation of the actual’ is this work by Hew Locke, a British artist of Guyanese descent. According to the wall label, Locke takes the view that the Queen has been party to countless secrets during her record-breaking reign, and that this nightmarish image captures the corroding and corrupting effect all these secrets and lies have had on her, by the look of it, transforming her face into a mask of eyes against a backdrop of scores of little wiggly lime-green skulls. The image ‘asks us to question the Queen as a symbol of nationhood , as well as the power and history which she embodies.’

Sovereign 3 by Hew Locke (2005) © The Trustees of the British Museum

For those of us who were around during the punk Summer of Hate of 1977 – 42 years ago – this is nothing new. Taking the piss out of the Queen is an extremely old activity, in fact it made me feel quite nostalgic.

Sex Pistols album cover (1977)

According to the curators, the period from 1970 to the present saw a resurgence of interest in drawing. Previously it had mostly been seen as a format in which you practiced life studies, or prepared for work in a more demanding medium such as painting. The 1960s opened the box on this (as on so many other genres and practices) and freed up artists to be as playful and experimental as they could imagine. Thus:

Drawings in the exhibition encroach on territories traditionally associated with mediums including sculpture, land art and even performance.

‘Drawing’ spills out all over the place.

Five themes

The exhibition groups the works into five themes, ‘examining’:

  • Identity
  • Place and Space
  • Time and Memory
  • Power and Protest
  • Systems and Process

Personally, I felt these ‘themes’ rather limited and directed and forced your responses to works which often had nothing at all in common, and could each have stood by themselves. Except for the last one, that is: because a lot of the works genuinely are interested in systems and processes.

For example, there’s a yellow square by Sol LeWitt which is just one of countless of works the American artist generated from algorithms, from sets of rules about geometry, shapes and colours, which he created and then followed through to produce thousands of variations.

There’s a drawing of the tiles on a floor by Rachel Whiteread which comes with quite an extensive label explaining that a) she has always been interested in floors which are the most overlooked parts of a room or building and b) that it’s a heavily painted drawing, done in thick gouache onto graph paper, which points forward, or hints at, the vast casts of rooms and entire buildings which she was soon to create.

There’s a work by Fiona Robinson which juxtaposes two sets of vibrating lines which she created while listening to the music of John Cage, and then of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Related to these, insofar as it’s black and white and made of abstract patterns, is this charming drawing by Richard Deacon.

Some Interference 14.01.06 (2006) by Richard Deacon © The Trustees of the British Museum

I found a lot of these ‘abstract’ works a lot more appealing than many of the rather obvious ‘messages’ in the ‘Power and Protest’ section. But maybe you’d prefer the latter. Different strokes. The whole point is, the exhibition has been designed to showcase the immense variety of images, formats and materials which can go into the making of ‘a drawing’.

The artists

What is a drawing? Well, this exhibition presents an impressive roll call of major contemporary artists all giving answers to that question, including:

  • Edward Allington
  • Phyllida Barlow
  • Louise Bourgeois
  • Stuart Brisley
  • Pablo Bronstein
  • Glenn Brown
  • Jonathan Callan
  • Judy Chicago
  • Adel Daoud
  • Richard Deacon
  • Tacita Dean
  • Michael Ditchburn
  • Peter Doig
  • Tracey Emin
  • Ellen Gallagher
  • Philip Guston
  • Maggi Hambling
  • Richard Hamilton
  • Gwen Hardie
  • Claude Heath
  • David Hockney
  • Andrzej Jackowski
  • Anish Kapoor
  • Anselm Kiefer
  • Minjung Kim
  • Marcia Kure
  • Micah Lexier
  • Liliane Lijn
  • Hew Locke
  • Nja Mahdaoui
  • Bahman Mohassess
  • David Nash
  • Cornelia Parker
  • Seb Patane
  • A R Penck
  • Grayson Perry
  • Frank Pudney
  • Imran Qureshi
  • Gerhard Richter
  • Fiona Robinson
  • Hamid Sulaiman
  • Jan Vanriet
  • Hajra Waheed
  • Rachel Whiteread
  • Stephen Willats

Apart from anything else, it’s a fascinating cross-section of the artistic practices and concerns of some of the most important artists of the last 50 years.

Mountain by Minjung Kim (2009) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Pushing Paper is in room 90, which is right at the back of the British Museum and up several flights of stairs, in the Drawings and Print Department. It is varied and interesting and thought-provoking, and it is FREE.


Related links

  • Pushing Paper continues at the British Museum until 12 January 2020

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Only Human by Martin Parr @ the National Portrait Gallery

Born in 1952 in Epsom, Martin Parr has become one of Britain’s most celebrated and successful photographers. He has achieved this by:

  1. being extremely prolific, having taken thousands of tip-top photographs which he has packaged into numerous books and projects and exhibitions (he has published more than one hundred books, exhibited internationally, was President of the highly respected Magnum photo agency from 2013–17, and recently established the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, dedicated to collecting and exhibiting work by British and Irish photographers)
  2. being an extremely good talker – the exhibition features an eight-minute-long video interview in which Parr confidently, affably and articulately explains his work (can’t find this on YouTube but if you search you’ll find plenty of examples of him being interviewed and chatting away like a favourite uncle)
  3. having established a style, a niche, a unique selling point and brand, namely large, colour photos of ordinary British people in crushingly ordinary, unposed situations, captured in a blunt, unvarnished, warts-and-all style
Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Massive colour prints

In fact, leafing through the many books on sale in the shop, you realise that his early work, for example shooting chapelgoers in Yorkshire, consisted of relatively small, black-and-white prints. It’s only in the past ten years or so that switching to digital cameras has allowed Parr to make much bigger images, with digital clarity and colour.

And it is hosts of these massive, colour prints of hundreds of images of the great British public, caught in casual moments, going about a wide range of odd, quirky and endearing activities, or just being ugly, fat, old, and scruffy – which make up the show.

Nice, France, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Humorous presentation

The exhibition fills the 14 or so rooms of the National Portrait Gallery’s main downstairs gallery space but the first thing to note is how Parr and the curators have made every effort to jazz it up in a humorous if rather downbeat way typical of the man and his love-hate relationship with the fabulous crapness of ordinary, everyday British culture. Thus:

Parr has always been interested in dancing, all kinds of dancing, and the big room devoted to shots of dancers – from punk to Goth, from gay pride to traditional Scottish dancing, to ballroom dancing to mosh pits at a metal concert – the room in which all these are hung is dominated by a slow-turning mirror ball projecting spangly facets on the walls and across the photos.

In the room devoted to beach life one entire wall is completely covered with a vast panorama of a beach absolutely packed with sunbathers in Argentina.

Installation view of the huge photo of Grandé Beach, Mar Del Plata, Argentina, 2014. Note the jokey deckchairs in front.

The Martin Parr café

Half way through the exhibition, the Portrait Gallery has turned a whole room into the Martin Parr café, not a stylish French joint with expresso machine, but a down at heel, fly-blown transport caff, with formica tables and those glass cases by the till which display a range of knackered looking Brandenburg cakes.

You really can buy tea and cakes here (two teas and two pieces of cake for a tenner), or a pint of the ‘Only Human’ craft beer which has been created for the show, read a copy of the exhibition catalogue left on each table, or stare at the cheap TV in the corner which is showing a video of the Pet Shop Boys busking at various locations around London (which Parr himself directed), or just sit and chat.

Buy now while stocks last

The gallery shop has similarly had a complete makeover to look like a cluttered, low-budget emporium festooned with big yellow and red placards proclaiming ‘Pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap’, and ‘Special offer’, ‘Special sale price’, and they have deliberately created the tackiest merchandise they can imagine, including Martin Parr sandals, deckchairs, tea towels, as well as the usual fridge magnets, lapel badges and loads of books by this most prolific of photographers.

Parraphernalia

The first room, before you’ve even handed over your ticket, is jokily titled Parraphernalia:

As Parr’s fame has grown, interest in the commercialisation of his images, name and likeness has grown exponentially. Parr approaches these opportunities with the same creativity he applies to his photography. Early in his career, Parr experimented with alternative methods for presenting his photographs, such as transferring pictures onto ceramic plates and other everyday objects.

Thus you’ll find a wall festooned with t-shirts, pyjamas, tote bags, mugs, posters, plates and so on each covered with a characteristic Parr image.

Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich, the Black Country, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Fotoescultura

Then there’s a room of fotoescultura. What is fotoescultura? I hear you ask. Well:

In 2009, Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide introduced Parr to Bruno Eslava, an eighty-four year old Mexican folk artist, who was one of the last remaining practitioners of the art of fotoescultura (photo sculpture). Hand-carved in wood, and incorporating a photograph transferred onto shaped tin, fotoesculturas are traditionally used to showcase prized portrait photographs in the home, frequently, but not always, of deceased loved ones. Parr commissioned Eslava to produce a series of these playful and affectionate objects to draw attention to the disappearing art of fotoescultura in Mexico.

These take up a wall covered with little ledges on which perch odd-shaped wood carvings with various photos of Parr himself on them.

Installation view of fotoesculturas at Only Human by Martin Parr. Photo by the author

Oneness

And right next to these was a big screen showing the recent set of idents for BBC 1. I had no idea that Parr was involved in making these – although if you read the credit roll at the end you realise the whole thing was researched, produced and directed by quite a huge cast of TV professionals. Presumably he came up with the basic idea and researched the organisations.

In 2016, BBC Creative commissioned Parr to create a series of idents for BBC One – short films between programmes that identify the broadcaster – on the subject of British ‘oneness’. He subsequently travelled throughout England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales photographing volunteer organisations and sport and hobby clubs, which he felt exemplified this quality. Parr’s evolving portrait of modern Britain shows people united by shared interests and passions, and reflects the diversity of communities living in the UK today.

For each subject, both a 30-second film and a still photograph were made. The films were all produced in the same format: participants start by being engaged in their activity seemingly unaware of the camera, pause briefly to face the camera, then return to the activity as if nothing ever happened.

You can watch them on Parr’s website.

Full list of rooms and themes

The rooms are divided by theme, namely:

  • Parraphernalia (bric a brac covered with Parr images)
  • Fotoesculturas & Autoportraits (fotoesculturas explained above; autoportraits are self portraits in the styles of other cultures, from Turkey, Thailand, the Soviet Union etc)
  • Oneness (the BBC One idents)
  • Celebrity (photos of famous people e.g. Vivienne Westwood, Grayson Perry)
  • Grand Slam (he likes photographing the crowds at tennis tournaments)
  • Everybody Dance Now (people dancing, from Goth mosh pits to Scottish Ceilidhs)
  • Beside the Seaside (he’s visited every major seaside resort in the UK photographing the fat and pasty British at play)
  • Ordinary Portraits
  • British Abroad (pasty-faced ex-pats in Africa)
  • A Day at the Races (pasty-faced, tackily-dressed Brits at the races)
  • Interview (eight-minute video interview)
  • Café (complete with Martin Parr beer)
  • Britain in the time of Brexit (for which he went to Leave-voting areas and photographed tattooed chavs and their pit bull terriers)
  • The Establishment (quaint ceremonies of the City of London, Oxbridge students, Her Majesty the Queen)

The Queen visiting the Livery Hall of the Drapers’ Livery Company for their 650th Anniversary, the City of London, London, England, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Identity

Regular readers of this blog will know that, although I welcome the weird and wonderful in art (and music and literature) – in fact, on the whole, I am more disposed to 20th and 21st century art than to classical (Renaissance to Victorian) art – nonetheless I am powerfully allergic to a lot of modern art curation, commentary and scholarly artspeak.

This is because I find it so limiting. Whereas the world is big and wide and weird, full of seven and a half billion squabbling, squealing, shagging, dying, fighting, working human beings – artspeak tends to reduce all artworks to the same three or four monotonously similar ‘issues’, namely:

  • gender (meaning all women are oppressed)
  • diversity (meaning all blacks and Muslims are oppressed)
  • same-sex desire (the polite, ladylike way of saying gay and lesbian sex: of course, all lesbians and gays and trans people are oppressed)
  • imperialism and colonialism (all colonial peoples and imperial subjects were oppressed)
  • and – sigh – identity (all the old, traditional categories of identity are being interrogated, questioned and transgressed)

It’s rare than any exhibition of a modern artist manages not to get trapped and wrapped, cribbed, cabined and confined, prepackaged and predigested, into one or other of these tidy, limiting and deadly dull categories.

Many modern artists go along with this handful of ‘ideas’ for the simple reason that they were educated at the same art schools as the art curators, and that this simple bundle of ideas appears to be all they were taught about the world.

About accounting, agriculture, applied mathematics, aquatic sciences, astronomy & planetary science, biochemistry, biology, business & commercial law, business management, chemistry, communication technologies, computing & IT, and a hundred and one other weird and wonderful subjects which the inhabitants of this crowded planet spend their time practicing and studying, they appear to know nothing.

No. Gender, diversity and identity appear to be the only ideas modern art is capable of ‘addressing’ and ‘interrogating’.

Unfortunately, Parr plays right into the hands of curators like this. Because he has spent so many years travelling round Britain photographing people in classic ‘British’ activities (pottering in allotments, dancing, at the beach, at sports tournaments or drinking at street parties), many of them with Union Jacks hanging in the background or round their necks – Parr’s entire oeuvre can, without so much as flexing a brain cell, be described as ‘an investigation into British identity in the age of Brexit’ or ‘an analysis of British identity in the era of multiculturalism’.

And the tired visitor consumes these exhausted truisms and clichés without missing a beat, without breaking a sweat, without the flicker of an idea troubling their minds. For example, see how this photo of bhangra dancers ‘raises questions of British identity.’

Bhangra dancers, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2017, commissioned by BBC One. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

The introduction and wall labels certainly don’t hold back:

This exhibition of new work, made in the UK and around the world, is a collection of individual portraits and Parr’s picture of our times. It is about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raises complex questions around both national and self-identity.

The portraits used were drawn from Parr’s Autoportraits series, also on view in this gallery. By transforming these pictures into shrine-like objects, Parr pokes fun at his own identity. At the
same time, he raises questions about the nature of photography, identity and memory.

Parr’s Autoportraits reflect his long-standing interest in travel and tourism, and highlight a rarely acknowledged niche in professional photography. As Parr moves from one absurd situation to the next, his pictures echo the ideals and aesthetics of the countries through which he moves, while inviting questions. If all photographs are illusions, can any portrait convey a sense of true identity?

Parr shows that our identities are revealed in part by how we spend our leisure time – the sports we watch, the players or teams we support, the way we celebrate victories or commiserate defeat.

These pictures might be called ‘environmental portraits’, images in which the identities of person and place intertwine. Do the clothes we wear, the groups we join, the careers we choose, or the hobbies we enthusiastically pursue, express our personality? Or is the converse true – does our participation in such things shape and define us?

The way we play, celebrate and enjoy our leisure time can reveal a lot about our identities. Questions of social status often sneak into the frame. Whether a glorious opportunity to put on your top hat and tails, or simply an excuse to have a flutter on the horses, this ‘sport of kings’ brings together people from many different walks of life.

The 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union is not only one of the biggest socio-political events of our time, it is also a curious manifestation of British identity. Politicians on both sides of the debate used the referendum to debate immigration and its impact on British society and culture. At times, this degenerated into a nationalistic argument for resisting change, rejecting the European way of doing things and returning to a more purely ‘British’ culture, however that might be defined.

But for me, somehow, the more this ‘issue’ of identity is mentioned, the more meaningless it becomes. Repeating a word over and over again doesn’t give it depth. As various philosophers and writers have pointed out, it tends to have the opposite effect and empty it of all meaning.

The commentary claims that Parr’s photographs are ‘about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raise complex questions around both national and self-identity.’

But do they? Do they really? Is a photo of some ordinary people standing at random on a beach ‘raising complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Or a photo of Grayson Perry, or Vivienne Westwood, or five black women sitting on the pavement at the Notting Hill carnival, or two blokes who work in a chain factory, or a couple of fisherman on a Cornish quayside, or toned and gorgeous men dancing at a gay nightclub, or a bunch of students at an Oxford party, or a photo of the Lady Mayoress of London, or of a bloke bending down to roll a bowls ball.

The Perry Family – daughter Florence, Philippa and Grayson, London, England, 2012. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Does this photo ‘raise complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

I just didn’t think see it. So there’s a lot of black people at the Notting Hill carnival, so Indians like dancing to bhangra music, so posh people go to private schools, so Parliament and the City of London still have loads of quaint ceremonies where people dress up in silly costumes.

And so Parr takes wonderfully off-kilter, unflattering and informal photos of all these things. But I don’t think his photos raise any questions at all. They just record things.

Take his photos of the British at the seaside, an extremely threadbare, hoary old cliché of a subject which has been covered by socially -minded photographers since at least the 1930s. Parr’s photos record the fact that British seaside resorts are often seedy, depressing places, the sea is freezing cold, it’s windy and sometimes rainy, and to compensate for the general air of failure, people wear silly hats, buy candy floss, and eat revolting Mr Whippy ice creams.

None of this raises any ‘complex questions’ at all. It seems to me to state the bleedin’ obvious.

Same goes for the last room in the show which ‘addresses’ ‘the Establishment’ and ‘interrogates’ notions of ‘privilege’ by taking photos of Oxford students, public school children and the Queen.

In all seriousness, can you think of a more tired and predictable, boring and clapped-out, old subject? Kids who go to private school are privileged? Oxford is full of braying public school toffs? As any kind of sociological ‘analysis’ or even journalistic statement, isn’t this the acme of obviousness?

Magdelene Ball, Cambridge, England, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

In other words, although curators and critics and Parr himself try to inject ‘questions’ and ‘issues’ into his photos, I think they’re barking up the wrong tree.

Photographic beauty

And by doing so they also divert attention from any appreciation of the formal qualities of his photographs, Parr’s skill at capturing candid moments, his uncanny ability to create a composition out of nothing, the strange balances and symmetries which emerge in ordinary workaday life without anyone trying. The oddity of the everyday, the odd beauty of the everyday, the everyday beauty of oddness.

Preparing lobster pots, Newlyn Harbour, Cornwall, England, 2018. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

I don’t think Parr’s work has anything to do with ‘issues of Britishness’ and ‘questions of identity’. This kind of talk may be the kind of thing which gets publishers and art galleries excited, and lead to photo projects, commissions and exhibitions. In other words, which makes money.

But the actual pictures are about something else entirely. What makes (most of) them special is not their ‘incisive sociological analysis’ but their wonderfully skilful visual qualities. Their photographic qualities. The works here demonstrate Parr’s astonishing ability to capture, again and again, a particular kind of everyday surrealism. They are something to do with the banality of life which he pushes so far into Banality that they come back out the other end as the genuinely weird and strange.

He manages a consistent capturing of the routine oddity of loads of stuff which is going on around us, but which we rarely notice.

The British are ugly

Lastly, and most obvious of all – Parr shows how ugly, scruffy, pimply, fat, tattooed, tasteless and badly dressed the British are. This is probably the most striking and consistent aspect of Parr’s photos: the repeated evidence showing what a sorry sight we Brits present to the world.

It’s not just the parade of tattooed, Union Jack-draped chavs in the ‘Brexit’ room. Just as ugly are the posh geeks he photographed at Oxford or the grinning berks and their spotty partners he snapped at the Highland dances. By far the most blindingly obvious feature of Parr’s photographic oeuvre is how staggeringly ugly, badly dressed and graceless the British mostly are.

His subjects’ sheer lumpen plainness is emphasised by Parr’s:

  • deliberate use of raw, unflattering colour
  • the lack of any filters or post-production softening of the images
  • and the everyday activities and settings he seeks out

And the consistently raw bluntness of his photos makes you realise how highly posed, polished and post-produced to plastic perfection almost are all the other images we see around us are – from adverts to film stills, posters and billboards, and the thousands of shiny images of smiling perfection we consume on the internet every day.

Compared to all those digitally-enhanced images, Parr has for some time now made his name by producing glaringly unvarnished, untouched-up, unimproved images, showing the British reflections of themselves in all their ghastly, grisly grottiness.

New Model Army playing the Spa Pavilion at the Whitby Goth Weekend, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

But this is a genuinely transgressive thought – something which the polite and respectable curators – who prefer to expatiate at length on the socially acceptable themes of identity and gender and race – dare not mention.

This is the truth that dare not speak its name and which Martin Parr’s photographs ram home time after time. We Brits look awful.

Video

Video review of the exhibition by Visiting London Guide.


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