Spring in Oxford

Monday, 20 June 2016

Whilst we all battle the storms and gales that June has brought us so far, it's easy to forget that back in May we had a couple of weeks of glorious sunshine. On one of those weeks, I packed up my bags and headed off to visit my mum in Oxford. I've already posted about our trip to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Oxford Botanic Garden; but we managed to fit in quite a bit of wandering and a couple of other museums, too. Oxford is undeniably photogenic - winding lanes, blossoming trees, listed buildings everywhere, college halls straight out of Harry Potter and plenty of quaint pastel doorways. As usual, I was armed with my camera and took an inordinate amount of pictures.

FEATURED: Balliol College, Christ Church Cathedral, The Old Music Room, The King's Arms, Bodleian Library, Oxford University Parks, Queen's College

Post-apocalyptic & Dystopian Reads #1

Monday, 13 June 2016

When most people find out I did an English degree and that my Master's degree is in Book History, one of the first things they'll say is 'so you like reading then!'. And they're right - partly. I love books, and I love the escape reading offers, but when your entire academic life and career path revolves around a serious amount of reading, it's sometimes easy to end up choosing to do other things in your spare time. For a while, the thought of picking up another book for fun after ten hours of studying made my brain want to escape through my ears. After my first degree, I let myself have some time off and then worked back into reading through my gateway book drug of choice: post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction (I clearly don't like to give myself too easy a time).

Jose Saramago
This novel is one of my favourites of all time, and I don't have many. A driver at a traffic light goes blind; the ophthalmologist who is treating him goes blind before he can work out what is causing the unusual 'white' blindness. Quickly, the mysterious illness spreads through the population, and the authorities try to contain the epidemic by shutting the sick into a mental asylum. Saramago makes this scenario frighteningly real - I felt like he really captured how society could break down so rapidly in a situation like this. The prose style is a little unusual, but I found that it really adds to the sense of tension and confusion which builds throughout the novel. Amongst the horror, though, you'll find beauty too.

Peter Heller
Hig lives with his dog under the watchful eyes of his survivalist next door neighbour Bangley, who counters Hig's flying skills with his watchtower and stock of ammunition. A kind of influenza has wiped out most of the world, with a blood disease soon following. Hig's existence is comfortable - or as comfortable as it might be at the end of the world, whilst mourning the loss of mostly everything you've known - but a random radio transmission compels him to seek out the possibility of other survivors. The Dog Stars had me in tears several times. Some of the prose is a little laboured (the sex scenes, for example), but overall it's heartfelt, simple, and beautifully written. A lovely reflection of the human need for something 'more' than survival.

Jeff Vandermeer
The first part of the Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation deals with the twelfth expedition into Area X, a strange area cut off from the rest of civilization and seemingly with a whole new set of biological and physical rules. Few of the team members from the previous expeditions have returned, and those which have have been irreparably changed by mental trauma, some with a kind of cancer. The novel follows 'the biologist', part of an all female team, and the rapid deterioration of the group as they explore Area X. Whilst in places I lost a little interest in the characters, I was consistently drawn in by the need to find out more about Area X despite its slightly contrived name. Vandermeer's prose has some serious beauty, too. I'm currently reading Authority, the second in the trilogy, and though I'm not finding it as engaging so far, my curiosity is keeping me going.

Emily St John Mandel
I was recommended this book by several people on Twitter, and they were right to do so! Station Eleven is quite a different approach to writing in the post-apocalyptic genre. The format seems at first to fit the standard world-after-disaster story: the Georgia Flu wipes out 99% of humanity, the people left behind deal with the fall out as best they can; cults and 'ferals' roam the landscape. However, Station Eleven strays both forward and backwards in time, weaving a narrative between the before and after, slowly connecting the dots. Mainly the novel follows a group of performers, the Travelling Symphony, as they move through the new world with the motto 'survival is not insufficient'. It's a beautiful exploration of art, memory and meaning.

Sandra Newman
Sandra Newman's novel rests on the usual premise: a post-epidemic world populated by warring factions. The twist is that these factions are made up of self-sufficient children, who will be killed by an inherited condition ('Posies') before they are twenty - one is our heroine, Ice Cream Star. It's not always easy going. There's six hundred pages to wade through, and I did get bogged down in the middle. I felt the narrative could have done with some whittling down - but overall, the world-building was strong and I felt for the characters. The whole of Country is built on language - Newman's prose is lyrical, intensely layered and unapologetic (don't hope for a glossary) - and this is what I feel is its most powerful aspect.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Of course, no visit to any city would be complete for me without at least one visit to a museum. In Oxford, I managed to fit in two - plus the Botanic Garden - in amongst our wandering and cake eating. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History was our first stop. Fascinatingly, the museum building was funded through the sale of bibles: the Oxford University Press was a significant producer of these from its founding. It's certainly an amazing piece of architecture, built in 1861 with influence from the writings of John Ruskin. It's well known for the beautiful glass roof and elaborate cast iron supports; the decoration is wonderful, though actually still remaining somewhat unfinished as funding ran out (you can actually see the differences in the window arch decoration in the photograph above). I particularly loved that each of the small columns of the cloisters inside are made from a different British stone, carefully labelled. The museum holds the natural history collections of the University, including the Oxford dodo, Mandy the taxidermy Shetland pony and of course plenty of fossils. Given that I work in museums in engagement, I'm also really pleased to see the museum has a youth forum for people aged 14-19!

I was sadly a little too early to visit their new exhibition, Microsculpture, which features large scale photographic portraits of insects by Levon Bliss. However, I did get to see Kurt Jackson's Bees exhibition, which was lovely and thought provoking regarding the current situation of bees int the UK. Both are part of a series of events at the museum called 'Visions of Nature', which explores the natural world through the lens of different visual artists. I really love this focus: too often we see art and science as separate subjects, rather than the amazingly interconnected disciplines that they are; each informs the other and have done for centuries.

I really love the 'day in the life at the Museum of Natural History' below - it's really nice to see what goes on behind the scenes in other museums, especially ones outside London which get a bit less press. 


Six ceramic artists to follow on Instagram

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Since I started living in a 'proper' house (i.e. one I could decorate and buy nice things for without worrying they'd take on mould spores), I've become a serious fan of all things pottery and ceramics related. I've found that Instagram is a great place to find artists working in ceramics - and most of them have beautifully curated feeds! These six Instagrammers are some of my favourites.

FLORIAN GADSBY is an apprentice potter at the Maze Hill pottery in London. Gadsby uses his account to document his apprenticeship, giving fascinating insights into the technicalities, successes - and even failures - of learning the craft. It shows off pottery as a science as well as an art form, and I thoroughly enjoy his posts. He also makes a small number of his own designs for his shop, which seems (understandably) perpetually sold out. Keep an eye on his Instagram for notice about when new batches of his muted, crackle-glazed wares will go up for sale.

MIRO CHUN makes beautiful ceramics and equally beautiful images. Her stoneware is clearly influenced by her training as an architect, with each object in a collection fitting carefully with the others. On her instagram account she shares well styled photographs of food she's grown and cooked, on ceramics she's made, as well as pretty snippets of her life in Phoenix (I'm particularly fond of her chickens). 

ILLYRIA POTTERY is based in Oxford, England - sadly I missed the opportunity to see the shop last time I was in the city, but I'm planning on paying a visit to a one-off pottery wheel class at some point! Founder Katie Coston is inspired by nature, using its forms or even making impressions from things she's collected (like the little limpet shell saucers!) Expect a beautifully curated neutral colour palette interspersed with leafy greens, and plenty of beautiful pottery.

EMMA BUCKLEY is a recent graduate of Bath School of Design, and has somewhat of a bare portfolio and a fledgling Instagram account at the moment - but given the quality of her Dye Lines project, I'm really excited to see what she's going to come up with next. The pieces are glazed and fired, then dyed using fabric dyes through a tiny gap in the glaze, which allows the dye to seep through the clay. Her simple forms let the soft gradients of orange, pink and blue do the talking.

WU WEI CHENG's ceramics are a little different from the others on my list - they're distinctly modern, simultaneously industrial and hand made looking. The attention to detail in combining minimalist, structured forms with often textured, slightly unusual surfaces is great, and makes for unusual but very appealing tableware. His Instagram is a lovely exploration of materials, from his work to the environments he photographs it in. 

Painter-potter HEATHER BRAUN-DAHL shares beautiful shots of her life in Vancouver (think flowers, Willow the cat, front porches and wild Canadian landscapes), progress shots from the co-op studio she works out of and well styled photographs of her products. Braun-Dahl has worked with the likes of Anthropologie and West Elm, and sells her lovely painterly, speckled ceramics in a range of colours in here online shop.

Oxford Botanic Garden

Friday, 27 May 2016

A couple of weekends ago, I finally got to pay a proper visit to Oxford. I'd had a quick visit back before Christmas with the group from my Masters programme, but with a day packed full of illuminated manuscripts and early printed books we didn't have much time for wandering, or my favourite pastime - museums! Luckily, my mum recently arrived home from two months working for the Durrell Wildlife Foundation, and is back working at Oxford University. So I grabbed my camera and hopped on the Oxford Tube.

Our first stop of the weekend was the Oxford Botanic Garden, and thankfully we had the perfect weather for it (though there's plenty of indoor spaces in the greenhouses if it's raining). Everything was fit to burst with flowers: forget-me-nots, tulips, cherry and apple blossom, and a whole host of cacti and succulents. It's actually the oldest botanic garden in Great Britain, founded in 1621, and it has thousands of different plant species. It's such a lovely place to spend an afternoon, and for anyone who likes to take photographs there's plenty of material!