BISHI

Painting by Ethel le Rossignol

Painting by Ethel le Rossignol

Bishi, musician, artist, performer, on one of Ethel le Rossignol’s psychic paintings

GB Tell me why you chose this.

BB A friend of mine invited me to see her paintings at the Horse Hospital. I immediately loved the way that they’re so psychedelic and that art-deco crossover, but unusually, they don’t have that twenties colour palette, they’re completely technicolour. They also remind me of the Hindu imagery I grew up with – but still have a distinctly European flavour. Where East and West collide has always been at the crux of my life and work. I come from a Bengali background and I grew up in London.

GB Would you say that they’re two cultures with very different ideals of beauty?

BB Absolutely. My experience of British culture has always been about the underdog and beauty through filth and resistance. But in Bengal people were really into the British Empire and whatever’s at the top of the pyramid of power. They love the establishment. There are still collections of people in Calcutta who speak with cut-glass accents. They took the EM Forster novel and it became their reality.

GB And do you think this painting is closer to one side or the other?

BB I think both sides would like it. The Horse Hospital where it was shown celebrates avant-grade culture and occultism, so everybody I know who’s into what I term ‘wizardy shit’ would be into it.

GB So you’re into ‘wizardy shit’?

BB Oh yeah. Somewhere in between Jung and Jodorowsky and Alan Moore and Alan Watts, with Aldous Huxey thrown in the mix. People can laugh at it and deride it and say it’s rubbish, but I just smile. I have no reason to try to convert someone to my way of thinking. I was brought up as a Hindu with elephants and swans riding through the sky. I didn’t care if it existed or not. I can relate it’s mythicism to surrealist thinking and altered states with psychedelic drugs. I’ve found my own truth in performing, nightclubs, music, DJing and performance art. I like to see other people communicate their gift.

GB Do you believe Ethel’s story about she created these?

BB Ethel attributes them to a spirit known as J.P.F. She channeled voices and the paintings came from these spirits. This appealed to me because I work with the human voice, songwriting with vocal layering. I also work in a collaborative way, channeling the voices of my the musicians & artists I work with. I like to see myself in a dialogue between different styles of music and different forms of art and communication.

GB When you saw the pictures, did you already know about their background and how they were created?

BB No, I was just completely hypnotised the second I saw them. It was a visceral experience.

GB Did you find out more about Ethel later?

BB Ethel died in the 1970s as a 96 year old, leaving 44 of these paintings. Half of them were donated to the College of Psychic Studies.

GB Do you think she made up the name Ethel le Rossignol?

BB I think she might have. She certainly understood show business on some level. She was a nurse during the First World War. There was a great spiritualist movement after the war because people were so horrified by the murder and destruction.

GB Have you heard the equivalent in music?

BB I think we all do it in music! But no one has openly admitted it.

GB So do you think inspiration comes from outside you – or is it all in your mind?

BB When it happens for me, it’s like a firework that goes off. I can’t fake it. As soon as I try to find it I don’t. Things come to you when you’re not looking. The best thing is to keep your head down and lose yourself in being who you are.

GB Is beauty something you think about in your work?

BB I never consciously think of beauty in that way because I think it’s such a difficult thing to define. But I see beauty in everything and everyone even when things are really dark and negative. I can always find inspiration. I think that turns into something beautiful. We live in a society that seems out to deride and shame people. Women in particular are so objectified.

GB Do you believe in universal beauty?

BB I think it’s dependent on your state of mind to a great extent but I’m interested in the way certain archetypes and  mythologies have remained in the public consciousness for thousands of years. There are certain things that we all respond to whatever our background or education.

GB It seems that you’re very visually led for a musician?

BB I would describe myself as a visual musician. When I was sixteen I read a book called Talking Music by William Duckworth and it had interviews with Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, Conlon Nancarrow – and that was the moment it all made sense. I’ve made collaborative work with interactive visuals timed to my music. I  have been quite uncompromising about it. It’s not easy, but to have authority over my work has been the greatest liberation.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

BB I think it’s connected to that flash of inspiration and something that takes you out of yourself. It can be disturbing. It takes you out of yourself and onto another plane. You shouldn’t have to try. It enters your existence and you don’t question it.  Curiosity is important. I know so many different types of people and you might say they’re eccentric but they have that curiosity.

 

BEN SANSBURY

The Starving of Saqqara. Photo: Concordia University

The Starving of Saqqara. Photo: Concordia University

Ben Sansbury, artist, on a sculpture called ‘the Starving of Saqqara’.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

BS At the moment I’m very interested in things that have some kind of enigma or myth attached to them. I came across this while I was looking for objects like that and this one had so little information available, that made it even more interesting. I like the idea that it was owned by a reputable collector yet there is no record of its acquisition or provenance.

GB When you first saw it, didn’t you think that it was quite ugly?

BS Yes! But that’s part of the enigma. I like the way that no one can really place it in time and it’s somehow jarring to look at. Perhaps I’m interested in the mystery of the story behind it more than the object itself and the aesthetic of it becomes beautiful through that. The people who possess it in Canada have only ever put it on display for a very short time, which adds to the intrigue. It’s a contentious object and it seems they’ve handled it in a slightly cagey way.

GB Well if you find beauty in mystery, it’s about as mysterious as you can get. There’s an idea that it might be from Egypt and pre-dynastic – which makes it almost impossible to date accurately. Do you know much about Saqqara?

BS It was an ancient Necropolis. I didn’t research the place too specifically. I like to take inspiration from images on the internet and I’m fascinated by the way objects are constantly re-contextualized through their use online. For example, the same few texts about this have been used over and over again on different websites and it just adds to the myth.

GB And there’s an inscription on the sculpture that no one can understand.

BS Yes, and traces of paint. They think it might have been painted. The idea of the text is the most fascinating aspect of it for me. It might be a clue to the development of language but also might be completely made up or misconstrued. I love things like the Voynich Manuscript too, even though I know someone now claim’s to have cracked that text.

GB Do you have a theory about the relationship between the two characters?

BS I was initially interested to work out if they were cowering or embracing and why someone would make a sculpture of people who were starving or imprisoned. No one even knows where the sculpture got its name and reference to Saqqara.

GB Do the elongated heads interest you?

BS Yes. in the sense that the shape of the heads excite conspiracy theorists as do many other examples of artificial cranial deformation. There are references to elongated skulls in many cultures worldwide – but there’s a bonkers theory that they are aliens or people who had seen aliens and wanted to look like them and thus had started to alter the cranial form of their infants from birth.

GB The Paracas skulls from Peru were in the news a few months ago. Someone claimed that they’d DNA tested them and it wasn’t human DNA.

BS Yes and there are claims by sailors who sailed through the Magellan Strait and claimed to have met giants in the 17th Century. Maybe there was a particularly tall group of people there? Maybe there were more variations of humans than we believe. I like the theory that homo sapiens would hunt and operate in the daytime whereas Neanderthals were less aggressive, a bit more intelligent and perhaps more nocturnal.

GB So do these ideas come up in your work?

BS In my own work and life in general I’m interested in how rumour and stories combine with facts so this object represents that combination – and how we use our imagination and create these myths. I’ve also been reading about pereidolia – seeing human or other forms in things. Leonardo da Vinci advised painters to look for this and use it in their work.

GB Do you want to know why people in the ancient world created sculptures? Do you think it was ever art for art’s sake?

BS Apparently, as people improve agriculture and have more than sufficient food production, that’s when they start to make objects that are conceptual or merely not for the sake of sustenance or survival.

GB So do you try to make your own work visually beautiful as well as having these intellectual associations with the distant past and mystery?

BS In a way. I wanted to make sculptures how you might make an abstract painting, to compose it in an intuitive way rather than having a clear idea of an end result. For example with my plaster work I’ve been producing I don’t create a mold from a master, I start directly with the mold and consequently I’m never entirely sure how they’ll look until they’re cast. But ultimately I take the forms and shapes I’ve found through all this research and put them together in quite an unconscious way.

GB So where is the highest beauty for you? Is it in nature or random objects that aren’t consciously art?

BS I love the combination of nature and man-made things – like a chain link fence that has a tree that’s grown into it. The tree has the beauty of solid strength, minute but constant growth. That slow but constant pace is what always overcomes man’s creations. That’s beautiful.

GB So what makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

BS With this sculpture the beauty is in the story and the mystery and the object would be less interesting to me without that. It makes me wonder why it’s important to know about it, and I like the suspense of trying to discover what things are. I like things like the tree growing around the fence because you can’t control it.

GB Do you tend to like things that aren’t supposed to be beautiful?

BS Not necessarily. I used to have to visit Florence and often had time to kill. I love the Uffizi but didn’t want to queue for hours, so I’d go to the archaeological museum nearby which has a great collection but was pretty rough round the edges in a fascinating way.

GB So rather than looking for virtuosity or prescribed forms of beauty, you like there to be an imperfection or a space for the imagination to operate in?

BS Yes. In this case there were incredibly beautiful objects on display in this slightly neglected environment. There were empty display cases in that museum that look as though they might have held something amazing – but now you can only guess. There was also a staircase there that was partly made from scaffolding with all these layers of gaffer tape around the tubes opposite a wooden flight case with a Roman Frieze on it, around the corner from the Etruscan masterpiece the Chimera of Arezzo, like a transient archaeological installation.

CARRIE REICHARDT

ROMAINA 002

Serena in the Tigveni Orphanage Romania, September 2000

Carrie Reichardt, artist and Craftivist on a picture of Serena in the Tigveni Orphanage Romania, September 2000.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

CR For me this picture represents beauty on so many different levels. There’s the fact that Serena herself is so beautiful and you can see that beauty through the happiness that’s radiating from her. But there’s something else that gives me a lovely feeling when I look at this picture, that creates beauty in my heart. She’s holding the first painting she had ever done. She was in an orphanage that I worked at and she’d never even seen paint. She’d never seen those colours. She’d barely been held. For me this represents the transformation that art can achieve. It can change someone’s whole world.

GB So was this at a workshop you were doing there?

CR Yes, I went with a group called Living Space Arts that included my best friend from college and her brother. We went for two weeks to work in Romania. It was one of those orphanages that you read about at the time. Kids were strapped down. It was horrendous. It was like going to a concentration camp. They had special needs kids there and when we arrived they wanted to choose only the most able children so we’d work with their best students and we said no. We said we’d work with every child in the entire school or nobody. We had them all brought in. Serena had a hunch and she couldn’t look you in the face. She was like the runt of the pack who was picked on and we were told she was subnormal. But the moment that girl was given a paintbrush she came alive. I’d never seen that in my entire life, that someone could have this connection to creating and working and she just started to do this amazing work. We did go back and work with her over the next couple of years and over that period of time we saw this child start to stand upright and take real value in herself and become a child that everybody else was responding to differently because they could see her talent. The local paper found at about our project and the mayor came to visit. It ended up on the national news out there. So peoples’ perceptions started to change.

GB What’s the number 6 on her shirt? And why is her hair so short?

CR It represents her room. When we first arrived, the children all had shaved heads to stop them getting nits. Also, a lot of the girls who were sexually abused would try to look as masculine as possible. At nighttime the only people who supervised the place were homeless people who got a free bed if they looked after these children. They lived in ruins. They had to drag themselves from the place they slept to the place they ate through human and dog excrement. I saw children repeatedly shoving pencils into their ears so they could get into the sick room. It was truly horrendous. And the only way I could cope was with the art and the beauty we were creating in that situation. You’re creating beauty that everyone can see, that makes other people see the humanity of these people that they are treating so badly.

GB It’s remarkable that she painted such a positive image.

CR Children are such vessels of innocence. Regardless of how tortuous their lives were, the joy they got from sticking tiles down and painting and drawing was incredible.

GB Did the therapeutic benefits of art become apparent to gradually or is that something you’ve studied?

CR My own history is that I did a degree in Fine Art at Leeds. I’d originally wanted to do film but I didn’t get in. For me, art was always cathartic, a way of being able to deal with my emotions. All my degree work is very autobiographical. It’s about having an abortion, splitting up with a partner, my relationship with my father. It was my way of addressing all these fundamental ideas about myself. I’ve had two breakdowns and during those times the only thing that really kept me from the brink was turning some of those experiences into art. It wasn’t art that was seen by anyone or made for an audience but somehow, being able to remove myself from the situation and try to analyse it in a creative way, saved me. After these experiences I got into mosaicking and community art. It’s been said that the quickest way to happiness is to find a cause greater than yourself. That has been my biggest learning in life. When I started to care about people in situations worse than mine it alleviated my own depression. So I started to be a community artist, then I decided to write to someone on death row. Those two things coming together totally changed my life.

GB Your work has such an immediate visual appeal but then it makes you think about these intellectual and emotional issues.

CR I’m always trying to make things as beautiful as I can and now I’m more conscious that I’m choosing to let some of the aesthetics go for the politics. But I think that in the finished object, the politics are what give my work its beauty. The only thing that interests me in art is the artist’s intent. If the intent is honourable and good, I believe that speaks in the work.

GB So you think you can tell when an artist’s intentions are good, even in an abstract work?

CR I would like to think that on an innate, sub-conscious level, yes. My personal experience has been that when I like work and I’ve got to know the person or more about the background, I’m validated in my choice. I think that our minds have been corrupted by popular notions of beauty, in the same way that we no longer know what’s good to eat. We don’t really know what beauty is because we’re so pre-conditioned by advertising. In my work, when I use certain cartoon imagery or icons it’s because they are the most aesthetically pleasing to me. But I’m so conscious that it’s an aesthetic that’s been defined for me as a child. It’s what I saw. Sometimes I wonder if I should use certain images, so I put the politics in because without that it might propagate this line of determining what’s beautiful.

GB A lot of successful art makes people look inward. You’re using beauty to make people look at something that’s often outside their own experience.

CR I like to see most of my work now as an information leaflet in a sense. I’m trying to get people to see what I see and I know that the aesthetic can seduce them in to look at it. When you’ve captured their attention you can show them something. I like doing this for the sake of practising my craft, continually making something new – but really I’m interested in how art can change society in a positive way. The work I’m most proud of, more than the public artworks, is work I’ve done with communities. I’ve seen from working in places like Romania, Argentina and Chile, how powerful art and in particular ceramics and mosaics are for a community.

GB Why those in particular?

CR I think mosaic is a fantastic metaphor for taking broken things and putting them back together to make a whole. It’s so physical and however it’s done, people will love it. I also have the belief that we’re so connected to clay and to earth that we love it. Mosaic is the most popular art form there is. But things that are popular don’t necessarily become valued in the fine art world. It’s a medium that makes you an outsider as soon as you work in it. Nicolas Serota, who runs the Tate, has gone on public record saying he won’t allow mosaics into the Tate because they’re a decorative art form. It’s such a maligned art form. Yet having the truck in the Victoria and Albert Museum (in Disobedient Objects) has brought mosaics back. I’ve wanted to legitimize political mosaic making for years, to do what Grayson Perry has done for pottery – to show that as a medium it can say really powerful things.

GB I still can’t get over the fact that a gallery director would disregard any medium of creating art in this post-Duchamp age.

CR We’re working knowing that the establishment won’t accept this as art. I think the Turner Prize will only show that it has any real meaning in terms of what contemporary art is the day they give it to a community artist and acknowledge that there’s art beyond this ideal of the single genius working alone. Now everything is about a selfie and a narcissistic view. I’ll be too old for the Turner Prize in two years. But how can you possibly say that people can’t do their best work after fifty? It’s ridiculous. I don’t see how you can get worse as an artist. You only get better. I don’t think you should be allowed to win the Turner Prize until you ARE fifty.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

CR If it makes your soul a little lighter. If you feel something in your heart and it makes you smile.

HARRIS ELLIOTT

Harris Elliott's shoes - made by Marc Hare and Barry Kamen

Harris Elliott’s shoes – made by Marc Hare and Barry Kamen

Harris Elliott, creative director, stylist and designer, on a pair of shoes.

GB Tell me why you chose these shoes.

HE I chose these shoes because ever since they were designed and put together I haven’t stopped thinking about them. Even though I work in the fashion industry I’m not a person who obsesses about clothes, but these shoes sum up the ethos of my traditional Jamaican upbringing with symbols of the Lion of Judah and the English monarchy. They epitomise the ethos of the Jamaican/British experience here in the UK as well as my exhibition Return of the Rudeboy, that just took place at London’s Somerset House.

GB So you commissioned the shoes for your show?

HE I commissioned the shoes as part of the sartorial room in the exhibition, it was a chance to work with some of my favourite creatives who also happen to be inspirational Rudeboys.

GB Tell me how the show came about.

HE I started working on the show in March 2103 with photographer and film maker, Dean Chalkely. We’d worked together from time to time and culture is really central to what we both do, whether it’s fashion, entertainment or sport. We had this idea of the Rudeboy show as a kind of observation on where so many references in our culture come from. So many subcultures that emanate from the UK have been heavily documented, but the story of Rudeboys has scarcely been represented, even though they are responsible for influencing other notable British subcultures such as the Mod scene.

GB Where does the term Rudeboy come from?

HE Rudeboy originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s to early 60s and Rudeboys were all men, many with gangster associations, not just in terms of who they were but in terms of their aesthetic. At the time there was also a lot of political unrest and Rudeboys were sometimes involved in the activities which often involved guns. These people lived by their wits to survive but their style aesthetic was always something that was incredibly impeccable. Post World War II a lot of Jamaicans migrated to the UK, with Jamaica being a British colony – so the mix of Rudeboys and Jamaicans in general started to inspire people like mods who appropriated a lot of the Rudeboy aesthetic. We wanted this culture to be properly celebrated here in the UK.

GB So that impeccable style is associated with a certain toughness?

HE Definitely. It’s about an attitude, it’s not about working out which floral cravat to wear. It’s a statement of intent of who you are. It’s quite unique that something so sartorial would be associated with something that strong. I don’t really reference gangsters in terms of organized crime. It’s about strength through style. If you have that kind of style you’re obviously not someone to be messed with.

GB To what degree do you think beauty is a part of style? This is such a macho culture. Would the word beauty ever come up?

HE Beauty as a term is often seen as more feminine but I can’t look at these shoes without thinking that they’re completely beautiful – the design and the detail. I wouldn’t call them cool even though they are. They’re objects of beauty. I wouldn’t want to tarnish them because they’re precious and their beauty comes from that preciousness.

GB So regardless of fashion, these have a timeless beauty for you?

HE The nod to the past makes them timeless. They remind me of my uncles when I was growing up in the 1980s. Men would often wear these little satin sheer ribbed fashion socks with very shiny shoes. And that’s where it struck me that such a macho, hard culture had these delicate touches.

GB It’s a very feminine thing.

HE Yes, it seems very contradictory in that way. Jamaican culture can be macho and sadly sometimes homophobic yet have this almost feminine side.

GB Yes, it’s definitely a bit of a camp look. But I suppose that might make it twice as macho because if you’re wearing shoes like this, it means you’re very successful in that culture. Does the fact that they were made by your friends make them more beautiful to you?

HE That does possibly nail it for me. Barry Kamen and Marc Hare are two people I really respect. Barry is an artist and stylist and Marc is a shoemaker/designer and marketing supremo, they’re both incredible craftsmen. Marc made the shoes and Barry adorned them, or in his words “styled them up”. It does make it more meaningful to me that they would collaborate with me on this project, as they are two people whose way of working I totally admire and I often wish I had thought of the things they create.

GB Do you think that wearing beautiful shoes can contribute to your well being in life?

HE Yes definitely. There’s that point where your day is defined by what you wear and what you present to people. Getting dressed is a form of language. You get dressed knowing what you’re going to be doing that day so there’s always some kind of curation even if you’re just throwing on jeans. You should wear clothes for how they make you feel and if you put on shoes like these you know that you’re going to walk tall. Shoes are what hold you up. They set the tone and define your purpose. If you’re wearing beautiful shoes you’ll conduct yourself differently.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

HE There has to be a sense of innocence. Even though these shoes have been created through a deliberate thought process, I don’t like things that feel too contrived. Whether I look at a cloud or a flower or a jacket, if it’s beautiful then I can look at it in isolation and it doesn’t have to be beautiful for anybody except me. I might like a crack in the pavement but I don’t have to share that with anybody else, as long it makes me smile through its uniqueness.

WILL SELF

Will Self's hand axe

Will Self’s hand axe

 Will Self, novelist and journalist, on a prehistoric hand axe.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

WS I’d wanted to get hold of a hand axe for some time; I put out a few feelers and discovered that such artefacts are very easily faked, and that to be sure of obtaining the real thing I would need to be sure of its provenance. Out of the blue I was contacted by an authority on paleoanthropology who told me she had a hand axe for me, one that had been dug up near London. It was apparently a ‘blank’ which means they found two exactly the same at the same site, and she said she could let me have it, although I should never tell anyone exactly where it came from. The axe is dated to approximately 400,000 BCE, which is far older than any human artefact I ever imagined possessing – the age alone is a source of wondrousness for me, as if the fact that when you hold the axe properly, you can feel that the individual grips of fingers and thumb were incorporated into its design by the Homo Heidelbergensis (a close relative of the Neanderthals) who knapped it into being.

GB Do you own it? Does that attachment contribute to its beauty?

WS So yes: I own it – and owning it is important to me. It is my favourite object and I would be unhappy to lose it – yet it’s still simply an artefact, albeit one that connects contemporary smart phone users (these are about the same size as the axe) directly with their forbears, to produce a sense of humans-as-toolmakers stretching across the millennia.

GB There’s a great deal of mystery around these tools. Does that give the object a degree of difficulty that appeals to you?

WS I don’t know about mystery or difficulty – once you give the thing a heft and try to use it, it becomes blindingly obvious how it was wielded and you can easily extrapolate what it was probably used for; it’s this practicality that beams out of the thing, travelling up your arm as you raise and lower it, a current of vitality-as-praxis.

GB Has Modernism made you more comfortable with the idea of liking something even though can never fully grasp the meaning?

WS Well, I can’t really grasp the meaning of this question (and I feel perfectly comfortable with that); certainly I can never be certain of what the context the axe was in was like, but I don’t think that makes the object itself particularly incomprehensible.

GB Your hand axe is from near London. Does the fact that it’s local make you like it more?

WS Yes, the localness of the axe is pleasing to me. Like most tedious middle aged people I’ve become more interested in my forbears as I’ve grown older. I discovered a few years ago that the first Self ancestor to live in London was staying only a mile away from where I live now when he completed the 1841 census – and this connection through place and time feels to me sustained (almost to the point of infinity) by this near half-million-year-old artefact

GB Do you subscribe to the “killer Frisbee” theory – that these were thrown at birds and animals?

WS No. It’s not a killer Frisbee – it’s a hand axe, it was designed to knap other stones, carve wood, and particularly to break bones so the marrow could be extracted.

GB Do you think that the person who created this was concerned with the aesthetic of the tool? Could the extent of the carving and attention to symmetry go beyond mere function, making this an early form of art as well as a useful object?

WS Well, art can be inadvertent as well as consciously arrived at. It isn’t the sort of speculation I’ve indulged in – the connection for me is physical: I touch this other hand or hands when I hold the axe; labelling as ‘art’ would seem to me a solecism on a par with the spurious twaddle that passes for art criticism nowadays.

GB Your own work is very much concerned with truth. How do you see the relationship between truth and beauty? (E.g. what do you make of Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”)

WS I believe things are true inasmuch as they cohere with one another; correspondence or correlation with an assumed world separate from the aesthetic formulation is nonsensical for me, so I resile from Keats’s statement.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

WS That it be pleasing, proportionate, interesting, involving and… succulent. My hand axe conforms to this paradigm – and I’m sucking it right now as I type.

RUTH SCURR

 

Finella, a house in Cambridge

Finella, a house in Cambridge

Ruth Scurr, writer, historian and literary critic, on Finella, a house in Cambridge.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

RS Finella is where I write and teach. It is a house on the Backs in Cambridge that Gonville and Caius College has owned since the nineteenth century. Every morning I see it and feel grateful for the beauty it brings into my life and the lives of my colleagues and students.

GB Do you prefer the inside or the outside of the house? With the plants growing over it and the meadow flowers in the garden it looks like, The Yews, the traditional English house it was before the 1929 refurbishment – yet the inside of the house is an Expressionist masterpiece.

RS Originally Finella was a sombre Victorian villa called “The Yews”, the house was renovated by Mansfield “Manny” Forbes (a Scottish Cambridge don) and Roger McGrath (an Australian architect) in the 1920s. They renamed it Finella after the mythical queen of Scotland, “a woman ahead of her times”. The house tells her story. She is reputed to have been Queen of the Cairngorms and to have discovered glass. This explains the use made of glass in the interior design.

According to legend, Finella died by throwing herself into a fountain of glass. There used to be a fountain in the garden that linked the outside with the interior expressionist design and iconography. The fountain has been covered up for decades. If I could change one thing about Finella today, I would bring back the fountain.

Looking out of the window from my desk I see the old yew trees and sometimes the muntjac deer that hide among them. I like the shadows the trees throw across the lawn in all seasons, but best of all when there is snow on the ground. I love the birds in the branches, especially the owls. The inside of Finella is dark and playful. There are plastic fish suspended on the stairs and walls of black laminated glass. There is a serpent pattern in the floor and beaten brass doors.

I find it impossible to imagine Finella as The Yews – to me it seems a triumph of transformation – a rejection of Victorian values as definitive as Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians.

GB Does it feel English to you as it’s such a part of Cambridge culture – in spite of being renovated by a Scot and an Australian?

RS No, it feels feminist and free. In the midst of Cambridge culture and male dominated tradition, Finella is a house that celebrates a radical, pioneering woman. Manny Forbes invited Jacob Epstein to exhibit his massive marble sculpture of a heavily pregnant woman in Finella after it had been ridiculed and judged obscene by the press. Genesis arrived in Finella in May 1939 and promptly fell through the floor. Lady Ottoline Morell came to see Genesis and was taken with the house. Finella has long been a progressive place.

GB It was renovated at a time of great change and said to be ahead of its time. The Grade I Listing text says it has “a significant interior for the history of the Modern Movement.” Do you sense this when you’re inside it? The best part of a century has passed since it was created. Does it look like a museum now?

RS Finella looks nothing like a museum. It is still a place of creative work. The composer Robin Holloway lives in part of the house and fills it with music. Art students visit from time to time and many people teach or are taught in Finella’s various rooms. Some of the interior decoration is scuffed or broken and in need of conservation; some of it, sadly, has been dismantled. But none of this detracts from the spirit of the house.

GB Was Mansfield Forbes also ahead of his time with his English teaching? Is he of interest to you intellectually?

RS Forbes was important in the establishment of the English Faculty at Cambridge. He was a revered teacher but he did not publish academic books. He made four recommendations: read the originals and stay with the best critics; read slowly; aloud; tolerantly. I try to follow these recommendations, especially the last. F.R. Leavis said Forbes was a man “to whom the world owes more than it knows”. I.A. Richards wrote that Forbes made many people realise “what the greater saints were like”. Those remarks make me smile: elegant and evasive, form without content. I think Forbes must have been more direct and to the point than his colleagues.

GB Do you think that surroundings like these have an influence on your work?

RS Undoubtedly.

GB Do you think that there are contemporary equivalents of this house? Not only was it a strikingly original design, it was meant to be a centre for people to discuss aesthetics and ideas.

RS Finella is unique so there are no equivalents, but there are some parallels with Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. Originally four cottages, Kettle’s Yard was created by Jim Ede and his wife Helen in the late 1950s: a beautiful place “in which stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture, in light and in space, have been used to make manifest the underlying stability.” I find the idea of houses transformed into places of beauty and education very compelling.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

RS I am attracted to calm, order and symmetry. Finella would be less beautiful for me if the windows and trellises were unevenly positioned. I find it hard to find beauty in chaos or untidiness or un-neatness. In an article for The Architectural Review in 1929, A.C. Frost described Finella as “half ‘Wuthering Heights’ and half ‘Sense and Sensibility’”. When I was an adolescent, Wuthering Heights appealed to me much more than Sense and Sensibility, but now the reverse is true.

ANTHONY GOTTLIEB

Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014. Photographer:David Cripps

Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014. Photographer:David Cripps

Anthony Gottlieb, writer and historian of ideas, on Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House

GB Tell me why you chose this.

AG Not only does the sight of it produce awe and delight, but the idea of it invites questions about beauty. Why, for example, does an object that has been shrunk to a twelfth of its size have charm, while a twelvefold magnification of the same thing would not? How is it that scores of its household objects and features—wineglasses, mother-of-pearl, ivory and marble bathrooms, damask wall-coverings, a motorcycle and sidecar, a knife-cleaning machine—are at least as beautiful to behold as the paintings on its walls and ceilings, indeed, usually more so?

Much of the awe that it inspires derives from the industry and ingenuity of the 1,500 or so artists and craftsmen who made it. It is only five feet high, but has working plumbing, electricity and lifts, a garage of cars with engines that run (and would allegedly give 20,000 miles to the gallon), and a level of detail that stops just short of the microscopic. The monograms on the linen took a seamstress 1,500 hours to sew; the buttons on the servants’ pillowcases are almost invisible; the Purdey shotguns break and load (sources differ as to whether they would fire); the bottles and jars contain what their labels say they do—such as Ch. Margaux 1899, Oxford marmalade or sticks of barley sugar. There are even mice in the kitchen mousetraps. It’s no Pyramid of Giza, but it works for me.

GB Can you remember the first time you ever saw it? Has the aesthetic experience of it become more complicated for you since then?

AG I first came across it in an illustrated book, published in 1988, by Mary Stewart-Wilson, and one of the first things to enchant me was the ingenuity of using hairs from a goat’s ear to serve as toothbrush bristles. Unless you already know about the tiny detailing of what is in it, you probably wouldn’t get so much out of being in the presence of the house itself. I was disappointed that you couldn’t get closer to it when I first saw it in Windsor Castle a few years later. There is now, naturally, an online tour, which is a useful supplement to photographs, because you can enjoy the illusion of moving around inside it. As far as I know, though, there has been no attempt to digitise the contents of the library, which contain many works composed for the dolls’ house, often handwritten by the authors into the tiny books—by Chesterton, Robert Graves, Yeats, Edith Wharton, Aldous Huxley, Hardy, Somerset Maugham, and many others, most of whom are now forgotten. It may well be that some of its treasures will stay out of sight forever.

I suppose my first response to it was childish, in the sense that part of the pleasure lay in the fantasy of playing with it. That has not changed; my attitude has not matured in that respect. It is meant to have a strong whimsical aspect, after all. Displaying the technologies and crafts of the 1920s, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous, was in part an earnest historical project; yet the library contains a tome by an eminent surgeon on doll surgery, and it is no accident that the stage is set in the nursery’s toy theatre for “Peter Pan”—the boy who never grew up. (Actually the theatre is one of many toy toys. There is an aspect of Russian nested dolls to the house. With nanotechnology, I suppose you could now make toy toy toys.)

GB It’s so extravagant. Is part of the appeal camp? Do you think that something can be camp and genuinely beautiful at the same time?

AG Camp has become a concept of such aesthetic sophistication that it is now largely beyond me. In the senses that the term had when the house was built (that is, 1921-24), I don’t think it is camp. First, and easiest, it is not even really effeminate; indeed, in terms of gender stereotypes, I’d put it in the male camp (no pun intended), because it evokes and required a nerdish devotion to the accumulation of equipment. The other main connotation of “camp” at the time was exaggeration to the point of affectation: something camp is overblown, and thereby fails to be anything except laughable or coarsely entertaining. Now, miniaturisation and detailing have in this house indeed been taken to the greatest extremes that were possible in the 1920s. And it is plush and luxurious, again to an extreme, because it is a house for a king and queen. But are we to suppose that if only it had been less ingenious, less complete, or to have represented something less royal, it would have scored higher on some scale of beauty? That is hard to swallow, so I’m going to say that it is not overblown, and therefore not camp. It is a little over-decorated for my taste—there’s too much on the ceilings, and sometimes too much gilt—but that would be true if it were a full-size house.

GB Are there any individual elements you find particularly beautiful?

AG For some reason, the bathrooms work best for me, perhaps because of the light and materials. They are also less fussy than some other rooms. The marble chimney piece in the saloon works well: it is one of the things that is, in photographs, indistinguishable from a full-size object—I’m not sure exactly which visual cues give away some of the others. There’s also a table in the saloon with an inlaid marble top which is a particular pleasure. It’s one of the few objects that was not made for the house, and is believed to be an 18th century miniature.

GB Do you think that this was a trivial thing for such a great architect as Lutyens to work on?

AG There must have been a danger that it would turn out to be. But the effect achieved has justified his decision to do it. When it was first shown, the Times called it “a dangerous sight for half-believers in magic,” and wrote that it appeared to have been built by the “cleverest human brains in the body of ants.” I agree, and those are not trivial effects.

GB Does it represent a way of life or a ‘great age’ that appeals to you?

AG Yes, English style of the period does appeal to me greatly, and I would happily live in such a house—after clearing out some of the stuff, and getting a better sound-system than the wind-up gramophone. But not in the servants’ quarters, of course, and one has to remember that a house like this can work only as part of an abhorrent social system. This doesn’t make the Dolls’ House as pernicious a creation as Downton Abbey, because it is not engineered to make you believe a lie about the relation between masters and servants. Downton misrepresents the period in order to make you feel it wasn’t so bad, but it was.

GB This was made at the same time as the art world was reacting against traditional forms of beauty, in the wake of the horrors of WWI. New art movements had been springing up all over the world from Vorticists, Constructivist, Futurists, etc. Do you think that in some ways this represents everything that they were reacting against?

AG I think there was indeed a sense at the time that it was a monument to a passing age, though this had more to do with the society it miniaturised rather than that society’s taste in art. And, yes, new movements in the arts and decoration were indeed in part reacting to just this sort of style. I rather think that many people—and not just in Britain, where the cult of the pre-WW1 house has always been strong—hanker nostalgically for it.

The house was built as a gift for Mary of Teck, who was not exactly avant garde in her taste, so it’s not surprising that its contents are uniformly conservative. It would be intriguing to know if any of the minority of artists who refused to contribute did so because they were unsympathetic to its aesthetic. George Bernard Shaw and John Masefield refused to provide books, and Elgar (unlike Delius, Holst, Bliss and many others) wouldn’t contribute musical scores for the library; but I don’t know why.

GB Lucinda Lambton (in her book on the dolls’ house), describes it as “a flagship of endeavour to ease the nation’s woes.” Do you think that we should build more of these dolls’ houses in that case?

AG National rebirth through a comprehensive programme of dolls’-house construction is not a plan with much political promise. It would, though, be fascinating and worthwhile to make a new one in ten years’ time for the centenary of the Dolls’ House. And it would have even more documentary value if the project included several simpler and more ordinary houses—as it should have done back in 1924.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

AG There are so many ways of being beautiful, some of which involve no action by any creature—not even combing your hair—that I rather despair of assembling any exhaustive set of qualifying attributes. I suppose one important necessary condition for beauty in an object is that it should delight some conscious being, or be capable of doing so. It does not even have to be the senses that it delights, since it seems fitting sometimes to call a person a beautiful one regardless of his or her appearance.

For me, natural beauty comes in through the eyes, but artistic beauty mainly comes in through the ears. Music means much more to me than painting, sculpture or architecture, and I would rather go blind and be unable to visualise than be unable to hear or imagine sound. Maybe this is a defect of education: perhaps some people never learn to see a picture properly, just as many people never learn to appreciate classical music. Either way, I regard my aesthetic appreciation of sights as compromised or incomplete. Perhaps some people will see my choice of a dolls’ house as a sign of that.