Review: Crisis Commission, Somerset House

Some of the leading names in the British art scene have made or donated works to the Crisis Commissi

Displayed in the East Wing galleries of Somerset House the opposition between the shows themes of isolation, property, security and space and its grandiose setting are set in grim opposition.

In the centre of the second room, Gillian Wearing’s Craig, a hyper-real 45cm bronze sculpture of a young ex-serviceman, stands trophy-like on a thin wooden plinth. The work’s scale creates a sense of isolation, it is emasculating, dislocating. Craig is lost in the vast space. The plinth’s transcription tells of Craig’s descent from soldier to homeless man, “Craig became homeless soon after returning from Afghanistan by rapidly spending all of his savings on alcohol. He was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder”. Commenting on the work, Wearing asserts, “I see all of my work as a portrait of people and the individual stories and experiences they go through”.

Again, a strong sense of narrative is evinced in Bob and Robert Smith’s Kite whose fraying flags trail across the gallery floor. An upturned bucket and rusting saw suggest a party that has long finished. “Help”, it reads, an explicit reminder of the need for intervention.

The fourth room is dominated by Nika Neelova’s Partings. Here, conventional architectural space is shattered. Concrete casts of the interior doors of Somerset House are taken out of context; they strain from ropes tied to a burnt timber frame, while fragments of broken wood litter the floor. No longer providing the entrance to a welcoming space, a refuge, a home, the doors instead present ominous barriers.

Further in, Yinka Shonibare’s crouching mannequin, Homeless Man, strains under the weight of a towering pile of suitcases. Though his dress is made up of vibrantly patterned, African textiles, his bent globe head betrays his burden. The hands that reach up to grasp his loads are disturbingly realistic. ‘Black, dark and piercingly cold,’ reads the swirling text, that spans the mannequin’s head, ‘it was a night for the well housed and fed to draw round the bright fire and thank God they were at home’. “The cases, stacked tall”, describes Shonibare, “weigh heavily. They represent all that is left from a previous life; any privileged person can become vulnerable at any time”.

This sense of vulnerability is shared amongst much of the work. Though, their interpretations are often radically different, the contributor’s representation of the subject is, for the most part, starkly effective. However, there are some pieces, such as Tracey Emin’s self portraits Deep Blue III & V that have less apparent links to the show’s theme. Indeed, in the 1999 documentary Mad Tracey From Margate, Emin commented, "It's pretty difficult for me to do drawings not about me and about someone else”. In light of what we know of the vast sums ammassed by today's big-name contemporary artists, it is hard to draw parrallels between Emin's situation and that of the figure of Craig.

All the work in the exhibition will be auctioned at Christie's on the 3rd of May. All proceeds will go to the charity Crisis. The Crisis Commission will be on display at Somerset House until 22 April.

Jonathan Yeo, The Park Bench. Photo: Mark Bourdillon ©
JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge