Ahead of The Harlem Meer Cat’s performance on Saturday 20th May on the final evening of this year’s Dulwich Festival, we caught up with one of the Meer Cat’s, clarinetist and saxophonist Ned Bennett. He told us about his early interest in jazz music and what audiences can look forward to in their performance.
How did your passion for music begin and what are your musical influences?
I remember being very young. My parents always listened to music, mostly classical as it happens. My mother had piano lessons for a while and I’d hear her practising, and my father used to sing a lot. My brother played clarinet, and I had violin lessons from the age of 6. When I was about 11, I was looking through my father’s record collection, and stumbled on an old LP of the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert from 1938. I put it on, not knowing what on earth it was, and BOOM…that was IT! I instantly became hooked on jazz, and demanded more and more jazz records from the library. Fats Waller, Ben Webster, some English “trad” bands, and of course Duke Ellington. I started to play sax from 14 years old, totally self taught, mimicking my favourite players, and learning to play jazz by ear, and with the encouragement of the Ipswich jazz fraternity, particularly two sax players, Tony Radford and the mighty “Slim” Hopgood.
Who are The Harlem Meer Cats and how did the band come about?
The Harlem Meer Cats were founded when Dulwich Festival first asked me to put something together for the 2015 festival. I wanted to do something special, that would appeal to die-hard jazz fans as well as, well, everyone really. We are 6 professional freelance musicians, all with a passion for Ellington’s music, and a desire to play it with authenticity and energy. Duke Ellington is one of the greatest of all musicians of the 20th Century. He led a band continuously from the 1920’s (the Washingtonians) until his death in 1974. Some of the musicians in the band stayed with him the whole time, such was his vision and charisma. The Meer Cats plays the music of his earlier years, chiefly when his band was resident at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem district, New York. Many of the pieces are in the “Jungle Style”, reflecting Ellington’s tribute to his African heritage. This featured Bubber Miley on growling trumpet, “Tricky Sam” Nanton making the trombone “talk”, and Sonny Greer creating African rhythms on drums. The pieces from this era are sinister yet seductive, mysterious yet soulful.
How often do you play together?
We’re having a good year with the Harlem Meer Cats. I did a lot of work on promotion recently, and we have played at the Camberwell Crypt, The Crypt at St Martin in the Fields, The Bull’s Head in Barnes, some Swing Dance events in Central London, and soon we’re at the Spice of Life in Soho, and further afield we have the Swanage Festival in July.
What do you enjoy about coming to play at the Dulwich Festival?
I live very close to Dulwich, (Forest Hill), and I teach in Dulwich. I do my shopping in Dulwich, and go to Dulwich Park with my wife and children. I know some of the artists in the Dulwich Festival Open House scheme. I also drink at Dulwich pubs. I know therefore we are guaranteed a great welcome by the wonderful people from all walks of life that I meet around Dulwich. Also as it’s a local gig for me, I’m looking forward to being able to play to some of my many friends who live around here.
In Memory of Ingrid Beazley, 1950 – 2017
Ingrid Beazley FRSA was an art museum curator, author, editor and educationist. Having studied art history at St Andrew’s University and then at London University, she worked in the education department of the Dulwich Picture Gallery for 20 years. Over the past five years she established the Dulwich Outdoor Gallery, collaborating with international street artists to bring their work to the area. As Chairman of the Friends of Dulwich Picture Gallery, from 2005 – 2008, Ingrid developed the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s first magazine, In View, followed by Dulwich OnView and was instrumental in encouraging the Gallery’s use of social media as a way to communicate with the public, in the days before this was common practice. She was a vital and dynamic part of the Dulwich Festival, particularly in the way she encouraged and developed the talent of local artists, using her home as a space for them to show their work in the Artists’ Open House part of the Festival. The Dulwich Festival interviewed Ingrid in her home a few months ago. She was full of spark and charm, speaking passionately about her desire that the street art project is kept alive.
Ingrid was interviewed on Saturday 11th March.
Where did your interest in art begin?
I’m not a practising artist, I’m an art historian and I took a degree in art history first at St Andrew’s University and then at London University. I’m also a qualified teacher so those two things – the art historian side and the teaching side – worked for around 20 years in the education department of Dulwich Picture Gallery, having fun telling children and adults about the paintings. I live in the area and I can walk to Dulwich Picture Gallery, so everything fitted together. It’s a job with flexible hours so it fitted in with having my children.
You have had a long involvement being a teacher and educator at Dulwich Picture Gallery. How valuable is art education in our society?
I think it’s quite important but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Museums and galleries want to bring in different demographics of people and they need to engage them with the paintings. If they are not interested, then they are not interested and there is nothing you can do to increase their interest if they don’t want to engage. Not everyone has to be interested in the same type of music, for example, why should I like reggae when I like classical? I feel the same about the permanent collection in Dulwich Picture Gallery (or any classical art for that matter). It’s an absolutely fantastic collection of Baroque art and I like to think, having done it for many years, that I can switch people on to like that type of art whoever they are. Give me a chance, listen to me, look at the pictures and I’m pretty sure you will enjoy it. But you don’t have to. It’s not a compulsory thing that we all need to enjoy.
What did you enjoy about educating people about the collection?
The kids come in and we talk, for example, about Samson and Delilah and all these exciting Bible stories or Greek myths. It was always satisfying when I would hear from the teachers later about a child, who had previously not shown any interest in anything in school and was suddenly enjoying what was happening in the gallery. Very often it happens with Bible stories. There are some kids who really know these stories because they are taken to church by their parents. They might not have had an opportunity to show this off in class. If they can’t read properly and no-one talks about Bible stories, then they are stuck there in the back of the class, not excelling. Suddenly the teacher and the child’s contemporaries discover that they actually know a lot about something, sometimes more than the teacher does about a particular story. It can give them the opportunity to excel.
You are well known for bringing street art to Dulwich. How did you become interested in street art?
Although I don’t think it’s important for everybody to love every type of art, I had frankly got a bit sick of Baroque art after 20 years. There is more to art than Baroque. There are an awful lot of people out there who just don’t go into, or want to go into Dulwich Picture Gallery and don’t know anything about that type of art. I’m on lots of mailing lists and saw there was going to be a talk by a street artist. At that point, like a lot of people, I had only ever heard of one street artist and that was Banksy. I’m not a big fan of Banksy, he does stencils only, which I don’t think is very skilful although his are very witty. So I went off to the East End, to hear this seminar about street art. There was an artist called Stik talking about his work: stick people, basically six lines and two dots, which are the four limbs, body, head and two eyes. He puts them together into people. He was talking about it and I was very impressed by how intelligent he was and I asked lots of questions. We met afterwards. He had never heard of Baroque art or Dulwich Picture Gallery. I showed him the pictures, which he loved mainly because there are so many people in them. He only does people. His work is very sensitively drawn people, either single people or in a group, and is about how they interact with each other, how they look at each other, how they touch each other, hold each other. There are quite a lot of paintings in Dulwich Picture Gallery that have groups of people in them, such as those by Thomas Gainsborough. They are all about human interaction or the lack of it. He was absolutely enthralled by the portraits.
We came up with the idea that I find walls for him, because I’m local and had the connection with Dulwich Picture Gallery, i.e. the establishment, so could talk about art history and the connection between classical and street art, and he would make paintings of people responding to the portraits in Dulwich Picture Gallery. Street artists want walls so they often find them illegally. I told him that for this project, as a member of the local community, I wanted to do everything above board and get permissions from the suitable wall owners. You can’t just go and paint a wall without permission and in addition it would be immediately painted over and there is no point in doing it. This was how it all began in 2012. It was only Stik and I didn’t think it would go any further than that.
How did you find the walls and what makes a good wall for street art?
I have lots of friends in Dulwich and some of them liked the idea of using their outside walls for a painting. A good street art wall is large – the bigger the better as far as the artists are concerned – and in a good position. If it’s at some traffic lights that’s good because people stop and have the opportunity to look at the wall. As far as I was concerned I wanted the owner of the wall to be satisfied and to want it. I ended up with about 25 walls.
How did this develop into Dulwich Outdoor Gallery?
In 2013, I met a street art curator, Richard Howard-Griffin, who knew a lot of street artists and started to introduce me to them. During the Dulwich Festival that year, we held the ‘Baroque the Streets: Dulwich Street Art Festival’. We invited some of the biggest names in international street art to Dulwich – Conor Harrington, ROA, Nunca, Remi Rough and System, Reka One and MadC – to create an outdoor gallery of public murals inspired by works in Dulwich Picture Gallery. We found major, large walls, which were painted during the weeks of the Dulwich Festival. We tried to co-ordinate it so we could pick up on the publicity of the Festival and vice-versa.
How did you help the artists interpret the paintings in the Dulwich Picture Gallery?
I said to each artist that they could come to the Gallery and choose a painting and once they had chosen it, I would tell them about it. They showed real interest. To give an example of one of these relationships, on the wall of Property Inn on Lordship Lane, there is a huge Stik painting of two people, who are not looking at each other, based on the Thomas Gainsborough painting ‘A Couple in a Landscape’. When I give talks or take people on street art walks, I always ask the audience to tell me whether the figures, a couple, look as if they are in love. The audience will very probably say no, they are absolutely not in love – they aren’t looking at each other, they obviously don’t care about each other. This is emphasised by the drainpipe between them. In the original Gainsborough, the couple have a dying oak tree between them. It is likely that the lady is holding a wedding contract, as these sorts of paintings were commissioned for special occasions such as to announce an engagement or marriage. Maybe this is a marriage of convenience? Stik has also used cables on the wall to replace the fence that the couple are sitting on in the Gainsborough.
Stik used the properties of the walls more than any of the other artists. Another good example of this is his painting outside Push Studios. It is based on ‘The Guardian Angel’ by Marcantonio Franceschini. In the original, the angel is looking up to a bright patch on the canvas, spiritual light. Stik has cleverly worked with the properties of the walls, with his angel looking up to a low energy street light.
How did the artists make the paintings in the Dulwich Picture Gallery relevant to a contemporary audience?
A good example of this is Rembrandt’s painting ‘Girl at a Window’ which portrays a typical young girl from the 17th century – she is quite poor, she doesn’t have fancy clothes, there isn’t a background showing her wealth, we don’t know who she is. It’s not a portrait, it’s what’s known as a genre painting: she could be any young girl of that period. The street artist System has re-imagined a contemporary version of this girl, the kind of girl who you might see walking down Lordship Lane today, wearing a baseball cap and a hoodie. He has converted an ordinary young girl of the 17th Century into an ordinary young girl of the 21st century.
Another interesting thing about this painting is that it is a combination of the work of two artists. The background is done by the street artist Remi Rough, and reinterprets the four columns in Nicholas Poussin’s painting ‘The Triumph of David’ to create an abstract background to System’s ‘Girl at a Window’.
Rough is a local artist, and nearly always does abstract work. He is also a very good figurative artist. He created the work in Dulwich Village, where the old SG Smith garage was, which is abstract but in the middle is an angel flying out of the wall.
Can you talk about the skill involved in creating a piece of street art?
Each artist has a different method of working. The sheer scale of the paintings and how the artists have each managed this has really impressed me.
Conor Harrington’s ‘Fight Club’, which is based on Charles Le Brun’s ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’, for example, was painted standing on a cherry-picker. All Conor had as a reference was a piece of paper, a photocopy of a photograph he had taken of his two friends boxing, dressed up in Regency outfits. He squared this up and then squared up the wall and painted! The scale of many of them is incredible. Most have made sketches in advance and some use scaffolding that rolls on wheels that can be pushed to a different position. Some use a ladder. All have to stand, or move their cherry picker back and see what their picture looks like before continuing. Faith 47 completed her wall in a day with just the help of her son. She only had one day in London so this was essential.
Did you ever encounter any resistance from the community about any of the paintings?
Street artists tend to have a set style and a set subject matter. That’s how you recognise them on the walls. You can’t tell a street artist what to do. You never know what you are going to end up with until it’s created.
There is one example, which I’ve written about in my book, about a piece of work created for the shop Mrs Robinson on Lordship Lane. She wanted a particular artist, who is known for using owls in his work, called Discreet. The painting was based on a Bible story, the story of Judith beheading Holofernes. Discreet reinterpreted the story in a cartoon style but the owner thought it was too violent. She disliked it and as it’s her wall she wanted the painting removed. He was pretty annoyed about it! This is the only time that this has happened.
How are the paintings maintained?
Tagging has become a bit of a problem. This is when other artists come along and scribble their tags, their signatures, on the walls. It’s marking territory but it also can be saying that the tagger has a respect for the work they have tagged.
Most of the time this tagging is done fairly sensitively and the initials are just written on the background of the composition or on a single colour of the wall and can be easily painted over. They don’t tend to paint over the images. The backgrounds are usually done with exterior paint and a brush or a roller. We have someone who we call on to cover up tags and renovate them generally.
I’m always checking them out for new tags. Also there are several people who contact me through, for example, the East Dulwich Forum, telling me when there are new ones.
What do you hope for the future of the Street Art in Dulwich. Some of it will inevitably be replaced or disappear. Do you think they should be preserved?
To begin with I always wanted them to be permanent. But when I started to get upset because of the tagging, one or two of the artists told me to stop worrying about it and perhaps feel like them. Once they have finished their paintings, they turn their backs and walk away and they don’t care about them. They would go mad if they started to worry about all their past works. I’m trying to do this but would also like to see them pristine for the Festival!
As part of the Dulwich Street Art Festival in 2013, you had a whole building on Lordship Lane which was taken over by street artists. How did this come about?
This was made possible by the huge generosity of the local property company Lightbox London. They try and support local projects and have supported the Dulwich Festival for some years. They bought a Victorian house on Lordship Lane for development and then they came to the Festival and said that the house would be pulled down in a few weeks and did we want to use it in the interim. Lightbox own the wall opposite the East Dulwich station which is home to ‘Girl at a Window’ by System, so I had already worked with them.
Richard Howard-Griffin, Remi Rough and I went to work finding artists. A lot of these artists are internationally known and you can only catch them if they are coming through London. It’s quite hit and miss. As they are getting more famous, they are travelling more and more. Richard helped to find top artists who were attracted because suddenly we had this house and we could offer each a whole room. Discreet for example had a whole room and he painted six walls. We had a cherry-picker available for the artists for the outside. They painted the whole house from top to bottom, inside and out. It was amazing. We weren’t ready by the first week of the Artists’ Open House but we were by the second weekend. One of the rooms was made to look like Dulwich Picture Gallery, and we hung that with the prints that the artists were selling. We got an artist who could do trompe l’oeil. We had the enfilade and the same colour walls and it looked like you were walking into Dulwich Picture Gallery. It was so funny to see people’s faces.
I think that was my first experience of stuff going viral. Everyone knew about a party we were having for the launch. We had a bar, music from a beatbox, a food stall… There is an 18-minute film of it on YouTube. Look up ‘Baroque the Streets’. A real mix of people turned up – not only the people from Dulwich, the street artists and their friends but people from all over who had seen it on the net.
The house was only open for one weekend and it was mobbed, but the couple of weeks we were given the house for before it was pulled down turned into a couple of years because Lightbox couldn’t get the planning permission they wanted.
How important do you think the Street Art project has been for Dulwich?
It has introduced the residents of Dulwich to street art. Now they have seen top quality street art, which I’m really pleased about. The quality is very important for me. They know what street art is, they understand it, they know it can be beautiful. I’m really pleased that people in the area know other street artists apart from Banksy. This is a sweeping statement, but from the many people I have talked to, it seems to be true.
I’m also very pleased that the Dulwich Society have written very positively about me and the street art. However, I am also amazed at how it has passed some people by completely and they haven’t noticed any of the paintings!
Which paintings are you particularly pleased with? Which do you think really work in terms of the relationship between the painting in the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the use of the location?
It’s difficult for me to say which ones I like best because I love them all. I do particularly like the one by The Plough, opposite the Dulwich Library, by MadC – the big bright blue wall. That works so well with the original Van Dyke painting, ‘Venetia, Lady Digby, on her Deathbed’. Her abstract strokes suggest the fabrics and Lady Venetia’s head and arm and the crux of the story, the rose at the bottom is painted photographically.
Lots of people really love Conor Harrington’s ‘Fight Club’, the two fighting men at the other end of Lordship Lane, opposite the EDT, the big black and white men who are beginning to fight.
You are a great champion of artists and regularly host them in your house for the Artists’ Open House part of the Festival. What do you like about being involved in this way?
I am very proud of my involvement in the Artists’ Open House. It’s very nice to be involved in a local community project. I am also lucky to have a big house and now the children have left home, I have all this space, so why not? I have this big garden so I do like having sculptors here so they can use it for display.
Lots of people come during the Festival to sniff around the house only and not buy as it is a weird double house. People come out of curiosity but there is nothing wrong with that. I very much like to give young artists an opportunity to show the public their work and make sales if they can.
The artists I’ve had in my house have been no trouble at all. Over the years, I’ve worked out a very efficient system of getting the artists in on the Friday of the weekend, and at the end of the weekend they pack up in a couple of hours and are gone. I’ve shown some of the same artists now for several years. I have a room with a special hanging system, so artists can just hang their work on a rail. I give them a space and let them curate it as they like. I have made it as easy as possible for myself.
I lectured at Camberwell Art College for several years and set up an arrangement with Camberwell art students doing a 3D sculpture course, to show their work in my house. In the weeks beforehand I would indicate to them how to sell their work, because they need to know how to do this to make a living as an artist. I invited them all to my home and helped the to communicate with the public. They must have price lists and the titles and materials of each of their works and all the information about their work at their fingertips. They need to have cards to give out so people can come back to them if they are interested in future sales.
And then of course the Private View parties were really fun. On the first Friday of Artists’ Open House we linked up with another couple down the road who were opening their house too. People would pick up a bright pink cocktail from my house and walk down the road and pick up another drink there. We had performance art for some years in my garden as well. There would be people walking up and down Court Lane on those spring evenings attending both parties.
Dulwich Festival Event: Street Art Walk with Amanda Greatorex on Saturday 13 May SOLD OUT
Dulwich Festival Event: Street Art Walk with Amanda Greatorex on Sunday 14 May SOLD OUT
Dulwich Festival Event: Free entry to the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s permanent collection on Saturday 13 May
2017 Dulwich Outdoor Gallery Map (PDF download)
‘Street Art Fine Art’ by Ingrid Beazley published as a hardback, and as an updated paperback, is available from local bookshops and Amazon.
Local historian and author Brian Green is a shopkeeper in Dulwich Village. He has been writing about Dulwich’s history and leading walks, talks and classes in local schools for 35 years and also edits the Dulwich Society Journal. An active member of the local community, he retired from supervising The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award when his first candidate became a grandfather. If you care to follow in his footsteps, Brian will be conducting a walk called ‘Hunting the Blitz’ on Sunday 21st May. The Dulwich Festival spoke to Brian ahead of the Festival to find out more.
How long have you been living in Dulwich and what do you like about living here?
I was born in Camberwell, but moved to Dulwich when I was aged 4. I have lived in various roads – Glengarry Rd, Aysgarth Rd, Dulwich Village and Dovercourt Road. My wife, Rita and 1 have lived in Burbage Road for 44 years. I like living in Dulwich because of its wonderful open spaces, its trees and its heritage. I also appreciate the benefits of living so close to central London.
When did you start researching local history and how do you go about it?
I first started writing about Dulwich’s history when I edited the Dulwich Villager Magazine, a community magazine but also the St Barnabas Parish Magazine. I was editor from 1963-83, 20 years. In 1981 I thought it would be appropriate to publish a small book on Dulwich’s history. This was very successful and so a companion volume covering the remainder of Dulwich followed a year later. I then felt that I should be better informed about history generally so embarked on what turned out to be an academic saga, taking 4 degrees over 17 years as a student at Birkbeck College, University of London which offers evening study for people who do a day job. Six further books on various facets of Dulwich followed, the most recent (2016) being the history of the Dulwich Almshouse, which celebrated its 400th anniversary last year.
What are the most interesting things you have discovered about the area?
I was pleased to solve a number of Dulwich’s mysteries! The origins of Dulwich’s volunteer battalion in WW1, Dulwich Hospital’s history as a military hospital also in WW1, tracing the elements of the Nazis and Fascists in Dulwich leading up to, and during WW2, discovering the story of Col. Leonard Lytcott – Civil War soldier, the story behind the foundation of Dulwich Picture Gallery and one of its benefactors – Sir Peter Bourgeois, the story of Dulwich Picture Gallery during WW2.
What can participants of your ‘Hunting the Blitz’ walks expect?
They might have seen me being interviewed by BBC London when we looked at the site of one of the most tragic air raids of WW2. People on the walk will still be able to see the remains of the air raid shelter where 29 people were killed when two high explosive bombs exploded simultaneously near one of the entrances. They will also be able to see the civil defence stretchers, some child-sized, which were recycled and are still used as railings on the Dog Kennel Hill estate. On a happier note they will be able to see the site of the Gaumont Film Studios which made hundreds of ‘shorts’.
Why do you like being involved in the Dulwich Festival and how important is it for the community?
I have always enjoyed showing people some of the fascinating aspects of this unusual part of London – where there is so much to see which can conjure up its history and its stories. I believe that the more people learn about where they live, no matter where, the more they will cherish it.