The Weasel: It's enough to put you off your polenta
It was with some surprise, therefore, that I found myself enthralled at the press launch of The Story of Time, a major new show at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The exhibition reveals the ingenuity with which different cultures have tackled the task of timekeeping.
"I've a soft spot for the rattlesnake," confided Richard Ormond, the museum's director, when I asked what was his favourite item. This turned out to be an Aztec carving symbolising their 13-month religious year. (Of course, you're aware that arattlesnake's tail consists of 13 separate rattles.)
Another unexpected exhibit appears in a room devoted to the seasons. Next door to Poussin's Phaeton Asking for the Chariot of Apollo is a tableau depicting yours truly, accurately described as "English (Yorkshire), 20th century". Pedants might point out that the display, demonstrating seasonal camouflage in nature, consists of three stoats rather than weasels, but let's not split hairs. One aristo wears ermine, another has gone for a two-tone look, but by far the most stylish wears an unaffected brown coat. Barring his lack of specs, he is a spit for the handsome fellow at the top of this page.
Halfway through the exhibition, the picturesquely antique - sundials, globes, hourglasses, astrolabes and so forth - segues into the mechanical. Not everything is as utilitarian as the lighthouse clock from Beachy Head bearing the no-nonsense injunction "one flash every 15 seconds". I rather liked the economy of function provided by an 18th-century monstrance clock, a combination of timekeeper and reliquary. But there's no denying that clock-watching is a serious business.
"This caesium Fountain clock is correct to one second in 15 million years," asserted Jonathan Betts, the museum's curator of horology. "If you want your smart missile to land down someone's chimney, you need this level of accuracy."
With such an expert on hand, it seemed an ideal opportunity to get a tip about time. I asked Mr Betts what watch he wore, rather hoping that he would reveal Mickey Mouse or at least a novelty Swatch up his arm. No such luck. "Today I've got this Longines quartz, but I normally wear a radio-controlled watch made by Junghan, which receives a radio signal from Frankfurt." Somehow I doubt Mr Betts has any trouble with timekeeping.
The eclectic trawl continues with Constable's wonderful sketches of clouds and a poignant sequence of photographs showing a German couple posed on successive Christmases for 44 years.
But the object that captured my attention was a calendar introduced after the French revolution, in which the months were renamed after characteristics of the season. The year began on the autumn equinox, partly because day and night, in true egalitarian style, are the same length at that time. The winter months became Frimaire, Nivose and Pluviose, translated by some English wag as Slippy, Nippy and Drippy.
This innovation fell by the wayside after 16 years or so, but there is a strong case to be made for its return. It's not so much the 10-hour day or the 10-day week (three to a month) that appeals, but the abolition of saints' days. With Christmas looming, this seems an admirable notion. Instead of martyrs, the revolutionary French government allocated plants or animals for each day. Some people changed their names as a result - a bit tricky if you happened to be named after St Catherine's Day, which changed to cochon. Other days celebrated asparagus, rhubarb, absinthe and root vegetables. Our 25 December, which equates to 5 Nivose, is chien. So, for three weeks today, may I be the first to wish you all a Merry Dog.
"To bring you the very best designs, Tom Dixon and his team tour the world looking for ideas," trumpets Habitat's brochure for spring/ summer 2000. "The flares employed to cordon off traffic accidents by Italian policemen are now available to you for use in the garden." Wittily dubbed "Bobby", this stylish illumination is sure to be much sought after when it appears in stores from next March. Alternatively, it will also be available right away if you happen to suffer a small collision outside Turin.
The brochure further notes that "green is the new black", "vegetables are the new flowers" and, confusingly, "melamine is the new (old) plastic". Excited beyond words, I sped to ultra-fashionable Shoreditch, where Habitat was holding a preview of seasonal lines truffled by the peripatetic Mr Dixon. "The theme is `fresh', the colour palette is green," enthused a beautiful press officer. "We're talking urban and suburban gardens. And growing your own vegetables." Seeds have been sourced from such exotic locations as Thailand and Preston, Lancs.
Habitat devotees will be able to grow varieties such as Pumpkin `Big Max' and `Mammoth Red Onion' ("largest in cultivation"). If there's any room left in their suburban plots after growing these monsters, they can plonk down a few ceramic seats (pounds 29 and pounds 45) from Vietnam. Since these uncomfortable items are glazed in blue and green, purchasers run only a slight risk of being referred to as Bill and Ben by the neighbours. After admiring some Portuguese buckets made from recycled tyres, I came across a picnic laid out on a patch of Astroturf. I was very taken with the plates, made from pressed leaves of the arraka plant. Though undeniably modest in price (pounds 1.50 for a pile of 10), the plates were so fragile and crumbly, rather like mille-feuille pastry, that it was hard to tell where one ended and the next began. Using them for salads could easily lead to the consumption of the crockery. Nearby, a hammock called "Sway" was slung, somewhat perilously, from bamboo poles. "Yes, we sell the hammock and the poles," said my gorgeous guide. "But they don't really go together. Our stylist made it up."
An encounter with a small terracotta barbecue was like meeting an old friend. Mrs W, who rarely lets a week pass without contributing to Habitat's bottom line, purchased one a few years ago. Unfortunately, since it is intended for cooking satay, a dish we rarely eat, the gadget has fallen into desuetude and has become a home for retired snails. Still, not bad at 29 quid.
Being of an age when our knees are starting to go, I doubt if we'll be investing in woven rattan floor-cushions at pounds 60 each, despite the environmental benefits of the water-hyacinth stuffing-material. As the brochure notes, this is "double whammy eco because water hyacinth chokes rivers if left to grow!"
Under a geodesic dome, a semicircle of woven "pod chairs" (about pounds 150 each) looked just the ticket for latter-day beatniks. Another item that appeared to come from Fifties Hampstead was a long line of bowls made from gourds (from 50p). My beautiful informant supplied the technicalities: "some sort of vegetable that's been scooped out and dried out".
A variety of empty glass bottles in a plastic shopping-basket appeared to be another valuable contribution to the environmental effort, since they were obviously intended for the recycling skip. But no, both bottles ("Monsoon") and bag ("Brigitte") are on sale. Amidst all this cutting- edge trendiness, I was pleased to discover a homage to the late Mr Thrower in the name given to a package of gardening tools: "Perci".
It took me a while to find the Habitat event, held in a disused brewery on Brick Lane, amid the efflorescence of bouquets such as Gilt By Association (fancy frames and icons) and Eatmyhandbagbitch (Sixties plastic furniture). Though they won't appreciate the fact, the trendification of Shoreditch owes much to that great artistic institution Gilbert & George. The duo have been living here for donkey's years. Their 18th-century house on Fournier Street was securely shuttered at the time of my visit. Perhaps it was as well. There are some things you don't really want to see.
It may be thought that G&G's infamous artworks are safely confined in large galleries, but I discovered that this is not the case in a book called At Home with Art (Thames & Hudson, pounds 29.95). A curious production, it is largely devoted to photo-spreads of the homes of rather self-congratulatory art-lovers. Edward Albee has an "African war canoe remnant" above his fireplace. Unsurprisingly, Anjelica Huston ("I feel very much backed by my ancestors") has a roomful of photos of her dad. The Duke of Buccleuch lives with a Holbein, a Rembrandt and a Leonardo - though the photos reveal an excess of chintz and a jar of Quality Street.
But by far the most striking picture in the book is devoted to the duplex apartment of Roz and Mel Jacobs, who walled off their kitchen to provide the hanging space for a massive Gilbert & George collage. As a result, their confined dining-room is dominated by the looming faces of the gruesome twosome. The artistic phizogs, mouths slightly agape, are approximately four feet high and bright red in colour. It's enough to put you off your polenta.
Still, when you consider the subject matter of other works in G&G's oeuvre - decidedly not the sort the thing to hang above the dining-table - I suppose the Jacobses got off quite lightly.
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