Monday 5 December 2016

A musical Christmas open: our visit to Pullens Yards

Luthiers Stephen Barber and Sandi Harris in the studio at Pullens Yards
Luthiers Stephen Barber and Sandi Harris in the studio at Pullens Yards
Pullens Yards is an area of Victorian tenements near Elephant and Castle, where the associated workshops survive as artists studios. Picturesque and atmospheric, twice a year the yards have a weekend when studios are thrown open, last weekend (2-4 December 2016) was the Christmas Open weekend and in amongst the expected pottery, photographs, jewellery, and visual art, there were quirkier artists too with a number of guest artists showing alongside the residents. And we found a surprisingly musical thread running through our visit, with opera set designs, lute and guitar making, and musical pottery.

Our first call was the studio of theatre designer Leslie Travers, a large lively space which Travers' in-progress set designs were sitting alongside 3-D printing, aromas and book-illustrations (an example of the diversity of art and crafts to be found). I interviewed Leslie earlier this year (see my interview) and it was good to catch up. He had just returned from the USA where the production of Le Nozze de Figaro, which he designed, is being shared amongst a number of American opera companies, and he has also been busy at Opera North were he designed the production of Britten's Billy Budd which opened this Autumn. He had photographs of past productions on show, notably the stunning Peter Grimes on the Beach performed at Aldeburgh in 2013, plus his work in progress for Fiddler on the Roof at Malmo Opera in September 2017.

In the next yard was another musical stop, the atelier of luthiers Stephen Barber and Sandi Harris. There amidst the tidied up chaos of a practical workshop we were able to see some of the stunning lutes and guitars which they had made recently, including some pretty spectacular fine-work. Also on display were the studio's two cats, who seemed to take as their due the amount of attention they received from their visitors. In one corner a young musician played lute, showing that these instruments were not just for show. As I had D. with me (and he is a picture framer), our conversation turned to wood and glues, particularly the difficulty of getting correctly authentic ones nowadays when many traditional recipes have become unavailable.

Finally, in the largest of the yards, ceramic artists Barbara Wakefield was exhibiting in her studio, and she always has a fascinating musical theme to some of her work, with small scale ceramics with samples of scores on. Lovely items, which have a tactile quality, but also which you can read and enjoy as music (I spotted one which was the opening of the cadenza in RVW's The Lark Ascending).

There was much else besides, including some spectacular wood carving (including historic frames which really caught our attention), and some very, very tempting pottery, and fine leather-work.

Pullens Yards was the subject of a huge direct action campaign in the 1980s as Southwark Council planned to demolish the yards and the tenements and replace them. Thankfully this did not happen and of the four yards, three survive.

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