The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead

Theatre

Nosferatu, Barbican Centre, London EC2, 31 October - 3 November

Halloween may be over, but if you haven’t got your fill of scary thrills, head over to the Barbican for their current theatre production, Nosferatu. Performed by the multi-award winning Polish company TR Warszawa, who are rapidly gaining an international reputation for experimental theatre, this show takes a new interpretation of Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula. In a production full of horror tropes - dry ice, billowing curtains and flashes of lightening, the production promises to seduce the audience “into a dream-like state”. Director Grzegorz Jarzyna is collaborating for the first time with avant-garde musician John Zorn in an attempt to explore “what lies between an idea and reality, between light and shade.”

Art

Seduced by Art: Photography Past & Present, National Gallery, London WC2, 31 October – 20 Jan 2013

Perhaps surprisingly the first major photography exhibition to come from the National Gallery, Seduced by Art, looks specifically at the influence of Fine Art traditions on photography. Spanning the early beginnings of photographic technology to its current digital phase, the show will juxtapose current photographers such as Sam Taylor-Wood and Gustave Le Grey alongside iconic paintings from the national gallery collection including Ingres and Degas. Divided into the themes of portraiture, still life, nudes and landscapes, the show demonstrates the continuation of an historic tradition which has been re-worked, re-interpreted, but still remains very much relevant to aesthetic judgements today.

Film

The Master,  Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson With: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

This hugely anticipated film by renowned director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will be Blood) could have scarcely been more hyped-up by its previews. Initial reviews have uniformly reduced critics to stutters as they attempt to articulate its power.   Joaquin Phoenix stars in what has been dubbed a "laceratingly powerful" performance alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams in a story loosely inspired by the life of L Ron Hubbard. Essentially a  story of two sociopaths and the elusive American dream, the film has been hailed as “a supremely confident work from a unique film-maker”, which leaves viewers “utterly lost in its demagogic thrall”.

Music

London International Festival of Exploratory Music, Kings Place, London N1, 31 October – 3 November

For those who don’t like their music mainstream, LIFEM is a four day festival at Kings Place which self-professes to “push back boundaries, challenging audiences with bold musical initiatives and a rejection of expectations”. This year’s theme is "Sounds from the Arctic Cool". Featuring a line-up of Scandinavia's most cutting-edge musicians, including Biosphere, EF, Deaf Centre and Wimme Saari, this promises to be four days of dark, surreal sounds.

Festival

Day of the Dead, Old Vic Tunnels, London SE1, 31 October - 3 November

Appropriating the Mexican tradition of Day of the Dead, the Old Vic Tunnels are being transformed into a four-day festival featuring music, art and theatre all to celebrate the eventual prospect of shuffling off this mortal coil. Featuring world music from Rodrigo y Gabriela alongside a host of stalls and bars selling Mexican street food and a liberal dose of tequila. New art commission enliven the tunnels with works from photographer Graciela Iturbide and the Le Gun collective, whilst families are also accounted for by Saturday’s children’s workshops.

Mexico City during the Day of the Dead. (Photo credit: ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
ANN RONAN PICTURES/PRINT COLLECTOR/GETTY IMAGES
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The amazing lawnmower man

How ex-bank manager Clive Gravett became obsessed with Edwin Beard Budding, the inventor of the lawnmower.

It’s midday in the Museum of Gardening. Clive Gravett, the founder, curator and owner of most of the exhibits here, is pondering a relatively unimportant item in his collection: a glass tube, about a foot long. “Blown glass,” says Gravett, leaning in close, “so it’s probably early Victorian.” This, he explains to a curious visitor, is the work of George Stephenson, the “father of railways” and inventor of an early miner’s safety lamp. It’s a device for straightening cucumbers.

Stephenson’s triumphs are listed on a plaque nearby, but this museum, located in a corner of a garden centre in Hassocks, West Sussex, is one of few places on Earth where a luminary of Stephenson’s stature must stand in the shadow of a more exceptional figure. The Museum of Gardening is a shrine to Gravett’s hero Edwin Beard Budding, who in 1830 made one of the great intellectual leaps of the 19th century. He invented the lawnmower.

Budding was one of those bright-eyed tinkerers so common in the 1800s – a “machinist”, according to his epitaph. Legend has it that he was sitting one day at a cloth-cutting apparatus, watching a bladed cylinder travel over wool and cleanly remove the nap. He glanced out of the window to where men were working a lawn with scythes, and had a sudden moment of inspiration. Surely this cutting cylinder could be used just as easily on grass as on cloth?

In that instant, the lawnmower was born. “And it’s barely changed to this day,” explains Gravett, a sinewy man in his early sixties with icy blue eyes that thaw when he gets excited. “Compare it to the fine-turf mowers of today. It’s the same thing. You have a roller, a cutting cylinder, and a drive. That’s his design.”

Gravett was destined to fall for Budding. The son of farm labourers, he wanted to follow his father into horticulture. “I planned to stay on the farm but my mother said, ‘You don’t want to end up like us, living on tithed property.’ She gave me a bit of a push.” Instead, he went into banking and – smart, energetic and blessed with an unforced quirkiness – rose to be branch manager.

“Thirty-five years later I was very disillusioned,” he says. “I’d seen a lot of colleagues waylaid by stress, and I thought: ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me.’ We got our branch to the top of the list and I resigned, and accused [then RBS chief executive] Fred Goodwin of corporate bullying in my resignation letter.”

He then started up a small horticultural business. It was while tending the gardens of a retired solicitor in Ditchling that he discovered four old mowers in the garage. “He said he wanted to dump them,” Gravett remembers. “I took them away, found there was an old lawnmower club, and it went from there.”

Gravett is cagey about how many lawnmowers he owns, but it’s somewhere around a hundred. That’s not many, he suggests, given that antique lawnmowers are hardly pricey. It might seem excessive, though, given that there’s no lawn on his property. Many of his mowers reside at the museum. They are huge and bulky and strangely insectoid in the 19th century, with motors coming in about 1904, and then the weight drops away until the Flymo arrives in the 1960s – a gorgeous piece of domestic futurism, more manta ray than machine. “A lot of collectors are quite funny about Flymos,” he observes.

Gravett loves to talk about the magic of restoring a lawnmower. “Some Ransomes mowers can be difficult to date,” he says, “until you strip the cutting blade back to the metal and see 1907 or 1911, and you’re the first person to see that since it was put together.” His real passion, however, is research. It’s the research that brought him to Budding.

Born in 1796, the illegitimate son of a farmer (“his mother was probably the housemaid”), Budding was a clever child, training in carpentry and then engineering. As well as the lawnmower, he designed an early pepper-box pistol, and in the 1840s, a few years before his death, he invented the screw-adjustable spanner. None of these made him much money: they arrived too early. His lawnmower was so ahead of its time that he had to test it at night – “possibly because of prying eyes”, Gravett says, laughing, “but possibly because people would think he was stupid”.

Today, Gravett remembers Budding though his museum and charity, the Budding Foundation, which supports young people across education, training and sport. He is still looking out for lawnmowers, and urges everybody he meets to check their shed for forgotten treasure.

There is one machine he doesn’t have in his collection: a Budding. “Nobody has a Budding,” he sighs. “He probably made a few thousand, but the wars gobbled up scrap metal. Even so, I like to think one might be found.”

But Gravett managed to get close to his hero a few years ago when he took a trip to Dursley in Gloucestershire, where Budding is buried. “Nobody had written about his grave, so I decided to find it. I researched the churchyard, and the council provided me with a map to the plots.” The border fence had been moved twenty years earlier after six graves were taken away. When he found Budding’s plot, it was right up against the new fence. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose him.”

The grave, like Budding’s legacy, showed signs of neglect. It was overgrown and covered with brambles. Gravett lights up at the memory. “I cleared all the brambles off, and then, since I happened to have a 100-year-old lawnmower in the back of the truck, I hefted it over the fence.

“I mowed as close as I could to his resting place.” 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain