Alice Spawls


23 February 2017

Post-Internet Art

The Zabludowicz Collection in Kentish Town is housed in a former Methodist chapel. The building became home to the London Drama School in 1963 – they were the first in Britain to use Stanislavsky’s system – and remained so until 2004. Ten years ago it opened as a gallery, showing works from the collection of the Finnish-British millionaire Poju Zabludowicz (his private investment company owns, among other things, half of downtown Las Vegas; he’s also a major Tory Party donor) and his wife, Anita. A former acting school seems like an appropriate venue for their current exhibition, One & Other, curated by a group of MA students, which is concerned with personas and performance (it closes on Sunday).


10 June 2016

Thankful Villages

The story of a village is inscribed on its tombstones. Families are listed by names and dates, their marriages, births and declines, the work done and the long struggle; how someone was shot accidentally, walking across a field, or succumbed to illness, or simply fell asleep. The village’s history is in its street signs and buildings, the etymology of its name and what might be left of a mill or forge, and the church, with its one good stained glass window, its few marks of distinction, coats of arms and hassocks embroidered with local signifiers. In the church or by the roadside, the names of another set of the dead are inscribed: those whose bodies never returned to their parish; the war dead. But 53 villages in England and Wales have no First World War memorial because all their men returned. In his King’s England guidebooks of the 1930s, Arthur Mee calls them the Thankful Villages. Fifty-three doesn’t seem like very many. Only 14 are ‘doubly thankful’, and lost no men in the Second World War either.


6 April 2016

The Rise of the Non-Book Book

On the high streets of small towns, the success stories are Primark, Greggs, Wilko, Poundland and variety shops like Tiger. Card and gift emporiums are ubiquitous. In this unpropitious climate, Waterstones is holding out with almost 300 shops, recovering – according to the figures – from near failure four years ago. The owner, Alexander Mamut, has invested over £50 million. James Daunt was brought in to give the shops more character and relax central control: booksellers can decide which books to promote and tailor their own displays. But it isn’t all about the books.


18 September 2015

Goodbye to a Bookshop

In Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, published in 1978 but set in the late 1950s (and based on her experience in a Southwold bookshop), Florence Green decides to open the only bookshop in Hardborough, a place with no fish and chips, no cinema, no laundrette, an ‘island between sea and river’. Ripping Yarns, the Highgate bookshop which will close on Sunday, is on a sort of island too, between Highgate Village and Muswell Hill.


29 July 2015

Not the Brontë Sisters

Witches always come in threes, and gothic spinster sisters too, so an early photograph of three severe looking women must be the Brontë sisters – mustn't it? – especially if the scribble on the back could be read as their pen name, Bell. ‘Relikes been they, as wenen they echoon,’ says Chaucer’s Pardoner; everyone wants to believe in relics and to know what lady novelists looked like (Shakespeare too, but no one seems too fussed by what Smollett or Thackeray looked like, though we have pictures). The photo, bought on eBay for £15 by someone convinced it's of the Brontës, is a collodion positive, the slow process (it takes up to fifteen minutes to develop) which began to replace daguerreotypes in the 1850s, and was itself replaced by gelatin plates not long after. Anne and Emily were both dead by 1850, so to be a picture of the Brontës this would have to be a photograph of an earlier daguerreotype.


17 July 2015

On the Tube

There was general upset earlier this year when TFL revealed that the redevelopment of Tottenham Court Road station would lead to the removal of portions of Eduardo Paolozzi’s 1984 mosaics. The 20th-Century Society called – again – for a register of public art and bemoaned English Heritage’s failure to list them (as they had the water fountains at the station, also removed). Most of the murals, TFL says 95 per cent, remain in situ and are being restored, but the arches at the top of the escalators, which made going underground look like descending into Ali Baba’s futurist cave, are gone.


17 October 2014

At Frieze

There are champagne and pizza in the courtyard at Frieze but no ashtrays, so attendants with brooms circulate two paces behind the smokers, collecting the debris. Inside, the bins are concealed in the walls to save visitors the embarrassment of admiring, or trying to buy, non-art that could easily be confused with the art-art. Safe in its playground, the art-art makes the most of this: it's all over the floor. Dog bowls with a little water beneath one picture, three pears near a wall, oversized wine glasses, a pile of vegetables.


30 September 2014

Open House

The Open House weekend, when buildings across London open their doors to visitors, gets bigger every year: the most recent, its 23rd, featured more than 800 buildings and 2600 architect-led tours. Part of the pleasure lies in discovering so much of the city that is hidden from you: 10 Downing Street, the Cheesegrater, banks, halls and bell-towers; it's like walking onto a movie set, or into another life. It also indulges your nosiness about how other people live (and where): who knew there’s a three-bedroom flat at the top of St Pancras Station's clock tower, or that Lewisham has a whole cul-de-sac built on stilts?


24 September 2014

At Victoria Miro

Francesca Woodman’s early death, at the age of 22, has cast a long shadow over her work. In the preceding years (her father gave her a camera when she was 13), especially those spent at Rhode Island School of Design and in New York, she produced a wealth of images: there are more than 10,000 negatives. This leaves a problem for her estate (her parents, George and Betty Woodman, are both artists) and her curators: it has been left to others to select, group and edit her archive. Eight hundred prints have been made, of which fewer than two hundred have been exhibited.


12 September 2014

At the RIBA

What is most striking about the retrospective of Edwin Smith’s photographs at the Royal Institute of British Architects (until 6 December) is his ability to capture the human relationship to buildings. A woman's silhouette in a shadowy side street is dwarfed by York Minster; a man in a suit casts a short shadow before the long shadows of the palatial façade of the Royal Exchange; a cat lingers uncertainly in the gateway to Ampton Hall.