Monday, 8 August 2016

London: Bridie Hall & Dr John Dee

Nearly a fortnight ago I popped up to town for a few short hours to catch Bridie Hall's pop-up shop and the Dr Dee exhibition.  An odd mix, and one I can't readily or cleverly link.  Firstly then to Rugby St and 'Pentreath and Hall' which Bridie co-owns with her business partner my friend Ben Pentreath.  As visitors to Pentreath and Hall will know the premises consists of two small linked shops - they share a common entrance.  The right hand shop is available as a pop-up shop and it is that that Bridie has transformed into something very stylish for two months over the summer.
Bridie Hall is a designer and maker heavily influenced by the idea of 'The Grand Tour' - the trip to the Italian states undertaken by young British aristocrats in the 18th & early 19th centuries ostensibly to study Roman Antiquity.  And this influence is very much evident in the goodies on display: 'Pediment Mirrors' and 'Roman Emperor Intaglio Cases'.  The decor too reflects that interest with one wall papered with a copy of the 'Rocque Map of London' and beneath a fabulous dado designed by Bridie in bold, strong colours - oranges, black and pink. The rest of the space was painted a lovely sage-ish green, the woodwork highlighted in white; an homage perhaps to the 1960s & 70s and to the interior designer David Hicks in particular.  The other items, the End of Day Confetti Lamps for instance, too strike that more modern note.  A contrast that Ben also explores in his interiors.  What gives a unity to it all however is the that bold use of colour I've mentioned before.   Colours are confident, the combinations often striking and original.  In fact it has been noticeable in the work of both Bridie and Ben how their use of colour has become much brighter and stronger, sharper even, of late. You have now until the end of the month to visit.  The Roque Plan and Bride's range of perfumed candles and decoupage (I particularly love the brushpots) are available in Pentreath and Hall next door.  Do go.

Then to Regent's Park and the Royal College of Physicians - a Modernist building by Sir Denis Lasdun, opened in 1964, set amongst creamy stucco and verdant greenery - and the exhibition:  Scholar, courtier, magician:  The Lost Library of John Dee.  The good doctor (1527-1608/9,) 'that excellent Physitian, Doctor John Dee', is an almost mythic figure in British culture - not only a courtier and scholar but physician, navigator, mathematician and spy.  A true renaissance man, an 'uomo universale'. The man who coined the term 'British Empire', whose cipher it is claimed is the origin of James Bond's number 007.  A clerk in Holy Orders who was also alchemist and magician, who claimed to have spoken to the angels.  Damon Albarn has even written an opera about him.  And it is that last - the magician steeped in the Neo-Platonic and Hermetical traditions - that interests me. Dee the 'conjurer of wicked and damned sprites'.  A man who stands simultaneously in both the Pre-Modern and early Modern worlds.
Dee was a great collector of books.  Even by today's standards his library was large with 3,000 volumes and it is a selection from the hundred or so books that have come in to the Royal College's library from Dee that form the nucleus of this exhibition.  A popular exhibition too when I was there. Quite crowded in fact.  Though that may be explained by the staging of the exhibition on what was effectively a landing. A little disappointing that it was quite so repetitive, and that the books weren't that visually exciting - no illuminated pages, for instance.  But they are minor points; the books were full of Dr Dee's annotations and little, charming sketches.  Marginalia I believe the term is.  My favourite object was what had been claimed to be his scrying glass or mirror - 'Dr Dee's black stone' (on loan from the British Museum).  In origin an Aztec mirror fashioned from a sheet of obsidian, that may have had its ritual use in the New World.  Writing this post I was suddenly struck by the similarity between Dr Dee's black stone and the palantirs found in the Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings', and subsequently realized that Galadriel herself used a scrying mirror (in the form of a basin of water).  I have suspected for a while now that Tolkien's work is more influenced by the occult that is at first apparent. At one time Dr Dee's mirror had been in the collection, suitably no doubt, of that artificer of the Gothic imagination Horace Walpole.  I can't think of a better place to keep such a strange and potent object as Strawberry Hill.

Perhaps we ought not to be so surprised at Dee's mix of the devout christian faith and his interest in the occult.  There is a long history of it 'all the way from Pico della Mirandola to Arthur Machen to Charles Williams' - the 'Third Inkling' and friend of Tolkein,  Anglo-catholic and Rosicrucian.

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