Wandering around Holborn the other day I stumbled across an open door pouring forth sweet summer sounds and eventually I convinced myself to stroll inside. It hit me like a crack in a paving-stone. A bombed-out shop front partially reconstructed and the walls painted a surprisingly glareless white.
It was a free exhibition, along New Oxford Street, right by the umbrella shop. And a musician stood there, by broad windows opening the rooms from head to toe, guitar and vocals singing to draw the crowds.
A pretty nice place to fall into.
The works displayed belong to a Lewis Hazelwood Horner, artist in residence at James Smith and Sons, the umbrelliers.
His stuff gives the feel of a bygone age living in modern times. A warp through history. As if the umbrella-makers, butchers and sitters he depicts walk daily through a portal to their workplaces, ignoring our new-fangled doors.
Casually dressed, like artisans, they calmly go about their work. Men across many backgrounds, drawn-out in overalls and shirts that look like they ought to be paint-stained. The umbrella-makers – the majority faction and the subject of most of the portraits – stand frozen with historic poise.
In a group scene, one opens out a metal frame like he’s launched a satellite, expanding into space. Another tests a wooden cane as though a masterwork spear, checking its precise straightness. The third and last has positioned himself amongst vague tools and wall-based switches, looking for all the world like a mad scientist who’s exchanged his white lab coat for tan coveralls.
Certainly it’s fair to say that the artist’s work left a decent impression on me.
Walking in fresh off the street though, it might not be to everybody’s taste. He has a tendency to portray his workers as workers. Even if they are artisans. So any romance to it is subtle. The pictures are mostly made up of dull colours, grey and khaki and dark, polished with blue and spots of shine, which (when taken as a whole) might numb the casual starer. But within these slightly dingy worlds, the characters still glow with life. Literally. Their faces partially caught in their workshop’s harsh or rough lighting. And, although set still in paint, their actions emit a sense of motion; flowing as though they’re in calm, steady continuance, or paused desperate to make the next move.
Between the black and white photos from JS and Sons past and the smaller paint sketches placed around the finished works, I think I’m right to imagine the artist’s sense of a history there to be lived again.
And maybe, in the half-ressurected surroundings of 49 New Oxford Street, there is a feeling of something new being drawn out of the old. Freed to live again.
Anyway, it’s free and open 12-9 until the 20th July. Go and take a look yourself and tell me I’ve been too nice. Lewis’ll be around to welcome you and chat about whatever arty stuff you may desire.
Check out the website material: