Sutton Hoo, the Minack Theatre and Tate Modern
This is a transcript of episode 36 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Will Gompertz, Duncan Wilson, Deyan Sudjic and Phil Jackson as we continue our journey through the history of art, architecture & sculpture in England.
A History of England in 100 Places is sponsored by Ecclesiastical
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.
Hello, I'm Dr Suzannah Lipscomb from the University of Roehampton and you're listening to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places.
In this series we explore the amazing places that together tell the story of England. Ten expert judges have worked across ten categories and thousands of your nominations to compile a list of 100 places, which have helped make England the country it is today.
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Today we reveal our final three Art, Architecture & Sculpture locations. They've been chosen by our Judge, BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz. Joining me in the studio to discuss them are my guests, Deyan Sudjic, the Director of the Design Museum, and Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England.
For our eighth location in this category of Art, Architecture & Sculpture we're going back in time to the Anglo-Saxon period, to explore an awe-inspiring royal burial site.
In 1939, Mrs Edith Pretty, a landowner at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, asked an archaeologist, Basil Brown, to investigate the largest of several odd-looking mounds on her property. Inside he made one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries of all time. Why did Will Gompertz choose Sutton Hoo?
Sutton Hoo is just such a great visit. It doesn't matter if you're with the kids or on your own, it's enlivening and remarkable. It's a step back to the foundations, I suppose in many ways, of what is now considered to be British culture. It's an amazing hoard of masks, and swords, and relics of a Saxon culture.
These great objects and treasures from our Anglo-Saxon past, which is kind of the basis for the culture we see today, are just a revelation. Because although we think we've come a long way and we have progressed amazingly, actually, this stuff is still pretty incredible. It would still be usable today. That wonderful metal helmet which almost reminds me actually of a late Picasso head.
So I just think that Sutton Hoo, if you really want to understand Britain and get a grip of where we have come from, you need to go to Sutton Hoo and see where it all started.
The discoveries at Sutton Hoo transformed our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon period. So, what sort of things were found?
Sutton Hoo is known for many things, but probably principally for the richness of the grave goods that accompanied the King that was buried there, who we believe to be Raedwald from the 7th-century. The grave goods are not just rich in themselves, they indicate an enormous range of contact with India or Sri Lanka for the garnets; Byzantine silverware and a lifestyle of feasting. The artefacts of war, shields, spears, all in all, possibly indicating that lifestyle that was illustrated so well in Beowulf, the famous poem of the 8th-century. I think it's a kind of glimpse into that world that you very rarely get. The Anglo-Saxons didn't leave behind buildings that are recognisable as buildings except for one or two parts of one or two churches, by and large.
To find this huge structure buried in a mound, amazingly fortunately with an excavator who recognised what he had, because it would have been so easy in 1939, for whatever reason, not to have been able to recognise this was a ship burial. Then recover the artefacts which were fragmentary, was an amazing piece of good fortune which we are still, I'm sure, all grateful for.
The burial itself must have been quite a feat of engineering. How much do we know about the amount of work that was carried out to prepare the tomb, the sort of size of the thing?
Well, the ship was uphill of the River Deben and the rise in the ground is about a 100 feet higher than the river. So it was quite a feat to drag a 90 foot long ship uphill all that way and then embed it in a mound with probably a purpose-built hut, like a wheel house in the middle, to hold the grave.
As with Stonehenge, we should never underestimate the skills of our predecessors and our ancestors. To me it gives an insight into an England before there was such a thing as England. It's reminder that many people have made this landscape and the sculpture. And that sense of understanding the layers beneath the surface to actually look at mounds and understand that they are man-made, is so fascinating and so important.
It gives us amazing insight into this period, the so-called dark ages, because it shows us how illuminated they actually were. The beauty, the craftsmanship of the objects, but it also gives us insight into just how skilled these people were. These people were highly trained, highly competent skillsmen, and what we see is incredible craftsmanship.
It is a window on an ephemeral world, which we know not much about despite all the archaeological discoveries we have made, including perhaps this, the greatest of them. This is unusual in the sense that it gives you all the artefacts associated with life as well as with the ritual of death.
And what you were saying about the connections to other places around the world, it does make clear that actually there is sort of no native English culture that is cut off from influences from outside. We have this sense, that from the very beginnings of the story of this country, it has been rooted in connections around the world?
Humans have always moved and every time you find a settlement, you find cultures from many different places. If you look at some of the Roman cities or Alexandria, these were all places with communities from everywhere. If you think about London, it was of course settled initially by Italian immigrants, before there was such a thing as England. You see that where materials come for in trade, in movement. The idea of settlement was never actually that fixed. On one level we're all immigrants.
I like the idea of calling the Romans, 'Italian immigrants'.
What's happened to Sutton Hoo since those excavations in the 1930s?
Well, the helmet and treasures are of course one of the principal displays of the period in the British Museum, where millions of people see them. Of course the mounds themselves, the place is in the custody of the National Trust with a new visitor centre. I think you can get a much better understanding of how it came in to being from visiting the place too.
Well, we will leave the so-called 'dark ages' behind to move to our next location in the Art, Architecture & Sculpture category and for this we are heading to the coast.
The Minack Theatre in Cornwall perches on the side of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. This extraordinary open-air amphitheatre looks like it should date back to Roman times. But in fact, it is much younger than it appears. So why has Will Gompertz selected the Minack Theatre?
The Minack Theatre is just a cracking example of British eccentricity, which turns out to be absolutely brilliant. I can't imagine it happening in any other countries. So in the 1930s, Rowena Cade has this house on the seafront in Cornwall and she envisages it as being an amphitheatre, a Greek or Roman amphitheatre, and sees that within the landscape of her grounds of this house. She starts to think about making it into a theatrical space where you go and watch shows outside. Needless to say, the first show she put on was Shakespeare's, The Tempest, which is kind of perfect for that particular environment. But also perfect that it's a great English playwright in an external space, dealing with a story of the sea and of eccentricity, which is what you get plenty of in The Tempest.
I just think that if you're going to enjoy theatre and if you're going to enjoy Shakespeare, where better to go than sit outside at the Minack in Cornwall.
It must be the most exciting location for a theatre in England. The Minack attracts more than 80,000 playgoers every year as well as more than 150,000 visitors who come to see this arresting sight during the day. We joined them to find out more.
My name is Phil Jackson, theatre manager of the Minack Theatre.
Here we are on the cliffs in Porthcurno- we are in the main auditorium. This is open-air theatre at its most open air! The Atlantic is just in front of us here. Back in the 20s this was just a piece of wild cliff, until Rowena Cade came to live here with her mother. They built a house on a cliff just above us. She got involved in local theatre- she was very creative. She was a seamstress and she got involved with the local amateur company making costumes and they got a bit adventurous and did a production of A Midsummer's Night Dream in a wood. A couple of years after they thought it would be nice to do another one and they did The Tempest.
This was her cliff garden and she gradually started to terrace the cliff and make it into a garden. They thought the ideal place to do The Tempest would be on the cliffs. So Rowena with her gardener back in '31, terraced out this bit of cliff, built a stage at the bottom and put on a production of The Tempest.
She had a wonderful gardener called Billy Rawlings. She always used to say, 'Billy could cut granite, like a knife through butter'. Now we are sat in a theatre, which since 1932 has been housing or putting on shows, and now it's rather big and we now get 100,000 people who watch shows every year.
The theatre is a bit like a Roman theatre. A lot of people think it is when they come across it and think it's an old Roman theatre that somebody has smartened up. Actually in some ways it's more akin to a Greek theatre than a Roman, because Roman theatres tended to be inland and had back walls, whereas the Greek theatres tend to be more open, didn't have a back wall, and were sometimes on the coast like this is.
Building an open-air theatre in the UK is probably not one of the most sensible things to do. But we are lucky here, right where we are on the coast, that the weather changes so quickly and it doesn't have a chance- we are in a little microclimate, so we quite often get away with the weather.
She built the theatre in this bit of cliff because it was naturally shaped. All she had to do was scrape out, well I say all she had to do, but she had to scrape out all the rocks and materials that were in the cliffs and level it out. It's actually got a natural amphitheatre shape, except that it's got no back wall. The Atlantic is the back wall!
It started off just being a grassy stage and grassy terraces. We still retain a lot of the grass terraces. But as the theatre became busier, she had to concrete over the stage because if you had six weeks of theatre productions in the summer, and you've got rain or sun, then you've got dust and mud on the stage. So the more shows she did, the more stress was put on the theatre, which is why we now get a lot of concrete seats and a concrete stage.
As an experience, it's a bit of a challenge. Some people have called it an, 'extreme sport', coming to watch a show here at the Minack. But it's an experience, and that's what it is.
It's a hard theatre, it's not the easiest theatre to watch a show in, but it is glorious. You get the right evenings and most of the time, as I say, we are very lucky. We are standing here now with the wind blowing and the rain coming down on us and you wouldn't think it's going to be great. But tonight, I'm pretty sure that we're going to have a beautiful, sunny evening and no wind, but it's difficult to imagine that now. If you are sat here with the wind driving the rain into your face, it's not the most pleasant experience, but it is an experience and that's what coming to the Minack is all about. It's open-air theatre, and this is open-air theatre at its most open-air.
We can hear the sea crashing behind us. We are right on the edge. If you're here, it is very difficult for actors, actually. They can sit here waiting for a cue, and suddenly the dolphins go past. It's very easy to get distracted and miss a cue, so they have to be right on it.
There was a production we had here last weekend- it was a beautiful sunny afternoon. All of a sudden there was a pod of dolphins that went past. All the actors must have seen was the audience's hands pointing out to sea above their heads and wondering what on earth was going on! Everybody's attention was totally taken to this pod of dolphins going past. So it is a problem for the actors as well when something like that happens.
From the 80s, to make it practical and to make it viable really, it became a tourist attraction as well, because people wanted to come and see it. They were beginning to learn about it and know about this place and so that income helped the theatre finance itself. Since then it's gone from strength to strength.
I guess it's the days of the internet now, that has actually broadcast it far and wide around the world. So we've now become world-famous. We'll have a quarter of a million people through here this year.
That was Phil Jackson, the Theatre Manager.
Rowena Cade, the lady behind the Minack Theatre was born in Derbyshire in 1893. She was the daughter of a mill owner and apparently first took to the stage at the age of 8.
After the First World War, she moved to Cornwall and built a house overlooking the sea near Porthcurno. In such a remote location, entertainment had to be home made and she became involved with a local theatre group, which staged an open-air production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1929.
For the next project, The Tempest, the theatre group needed a more dramatic stage. Rowena initially offered her garden, but decided instead to build a stage into the cliff beneath her house. So how did she go about building an amphitheatre into the cliff?
Well, it was very much a DIY project and a remarkable achievement for that! I initially I think she just hacked out enough of the rock to make places people could perch on and a stage. But then she and her gardener, Billy Rawlings, began to make it a bit more sophisticated with cement with Celtic designs in it. But its essential quality for me is the fact that it is quite organic and of the place. It's not over engineered.
It's a wonderfully eccentric English amateur operation, which works magnificently because of its extraordinary setting. It is very much like a slightly grand back garden, which has been turned into a public space with a fantastic setting- that is so English and so seductive.
It sounds like the construction must have been terribly difficult. To think of lumping bags of sand up to the beach to mix with the cement in order to make a flat surface?
It indicates for me the power of place and how a relatively modest construction in an extraordinary natural environment to produce something that is ephemeral but will last in everybody's memory, is just as powerful as some of these great architectural places.
As an experience of course there is always that frisson of wondering whether it's going to rain, and whether the dolphins are going to appear in the bay and all of that which I'm sure adds to it. It's just much less self-contained than a normal theatre.
There is nothing else like it anywhere.
It is a bit of a hostage to the weather isn't it, or hostage to fortune. I mean, it looks like it would be more at home on the Amalfi coast. Perhaps what you are saying is that adds to the charm, the element of danger?
I think it probably helps you select the repertoire. I mean The Tempest was the first production, and that was obviously not just because of the reference to the weather, but the fact it was on a rocky coast! I think you would choose works that the environment kind of reinforced.
Macbeth, perhaps, on a bad day?
Our final location in the Art, Architecture & Sculpture category is the Tate Modern in London. This is a building that makes a special contribution to the London skyline. Just across the River Thames is one of our earlier nominations in this category, St Paul's Cathedral. I like the fact that two of our locations in this category are connected across the Thames. Will Gompertz tells us why the Tate Modern makes his list of ten.
What I particularly like about it, is it's an old power station, which was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott. It went into disuse and disrepair and was then reinvigorated and reimagined in the late 1990s by the Swiss architects, Herzog & de Meuron, into a place for the people.
It has an airiness and a welcome, which I don't think you'll find anywhere else in any other museum in the world. And actually in a way, the Tate Modern has transformed our relationship with art. Before Tate Modern you could argue we were more interested in the art of the past. With Tate Modern, I think we've become more interested in the art of the present, the art which is made in our times.
It made the UK in general, and London specifically, the art centre of the world. And suddenly really, the landscape of Britain, with the Hepworth in Wakefield, the Turner Contemporary in Margate, and many other buildings, have had the confidence to be commissioned because of Tate Modern.
Our interest in modern art had arrived and all of them have that same sort of friendly welcome, which starts with Tate Modern. I love it because it matches a modern idea, a contemporary idea, which is art for the masses, with the architecture of great contemporary architects, Herzog & de Meuron from Switzerland, with I think one of my favourite British architects and designers, Giles Gilbert Scott, who not only made the original Tate Modern, but was also the man behind the red telephone box.
So, what's so special about the Tate Modern?
I see Tate Modern as being almost an area of London. It's now being built in 3 phases. The original of course was a working power station. It became technologically redundant and what had once been seen as quite an ambitious industrial eyesore, was now turned in to a part of London's heritage, part of its identity, and turned very effectively into an extraordinarily successful museum of contemporary art.
Until Tate Modern opened there was a sense that contemporary art was something which the tabloid press mocked gently. It was something for a very small number of people who perhaps wore Japanese suits and had important haircuts.
What Tate did was create an amazing public space, full of contemporary art, full of crowds, which actually made this art form work for a very large public audience. It became almost stifled by its own success- five million people a year were tripping through this building and then it began to expand. It's actually become a place in which you can go and see art in one place or have a meal somewhere else or go shopping or go and meet your friends, and to me that's not a building, it's a part of a city, a living part of the city.
I think one of the remarkable things about it is the way we now take for granted the re-use of industrial buildings for this kind of thing. It was very pioneering in that sense. I wonder how many people come into it today, were it not for the chimney, would think this was built as an art gallery. It works extraordinarily well because of the huge, cavernous spaces that can accommodate large works of art.
We should talk about what is inside the building as well. The art that it accommodates and draws people to see?
A previous generation of directors and trustees at the Tate had had trouble coming to terms with some of the more challenging works of contemporary art in the 1930s and 40s. There were huge gaps in its collection. Not a great deal of Picasso; not a great deal of some of the other continental masters. So one of the things they had to do with the permanent collection was to find a different way to hang it. So it's now shown thematically rather than chronologically.
It also has a very dynamic programme of temporary shows. Every year there is the remarkable Turbine Hall Commission, which began with Louise Bourgeois and the gigantic spider. It started Olafur Eliasson's career when he did a huge piece showing a sun in that space. It really showed that art doesn't need words, it's just a very powerful social experience.
In fact, it speaks to many of the places we have considered in this category in that it really seems to be about art for all. How important do you think it has been culturally in bringing art to everyone?
There's a fantastic sense of arrival with the Turbine Hall, which I think kind of relaxes people into thinking this is somewhere you're supposed to be, rather than somewhere you are a visitor to, following a prescribed route. You are allowed to mill around.
It is a very unprecious way to show art. It was very brave. It changed the way people saw things.
Another amazing place and the last in our Art, Architecture & Sculpture top ten.
It must have been a very difficult process for Will Gompertz to choose just ten. So before we go we gave him time to mention anywhere he thought ought to be added to this category: his honourable mention and why.
I'm going to go for my place of work. I'm going to go for Broadcasting House in Upper Regent Street.
There's two parts to it. There's new Broadcasting House which was added to broadcasting house five or six years ago, but the original Broadcasting House is an Art Deco building, which looks like the prow of a ship.
As you go up and past Nash's All Souls church, there you see old Broadcasting House, which it's now called. On the outside, there's an Eric Gill sculpture from The Tempest. It's Prospero and Arial.
On the inside there is another fantastic Eric Gill sculpture, which is by the lifts. The lifts themselves are fabulous, because there is a marble wall and then there is this brass frame around the lifts and then the old original BBC logo. It is in a way going back in time, but also it kind of sums up what the BBC was in those days, and I think still is now. It's just made so well. It is so much of its time. It feels contemporary now, it must have felt incredibly contemporary then. But it just feels so solid, so honest, so British. Then as you go out of the building, there's a council chamber, a wonderful wood lined space where Lord Reith would hold meetings for all the trustees of the BBC.
The building itself, looking at it, does look like a prow of a ship, suggesting that here we are, the British Broadcasting Corporation, going out into the world to voyage, to share, to journey, to meet and to greet. I think it's just the most wonderful building and the most wonderful place to work.
Well, that is it for the theme of Art, Architecture & Sculpture.
In this category we have covered
- The Angel of the North in Gateshead;
- Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Wakefield;
- Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden in Cornwall;
- St Paul's Cathedral in London;
- Coventry Cathedral in Coventry;
- Chatsworth House in Derbyshire;
- Kelmscott Manor in Gloucestershire;
- Sutton Hoo in Suffolk;
- The Minack Theatre in Cornwall,
- The Tate Modern on the banks of the Thames in London.
If you think we have missed anything tell us about the locations that make your list using the hashtag 100 places.
Thank you to my guests, Deyan Sudjic, and Duncan Wilson, and our judge Will Gompertz.
I'm Suzannah Lipscomb. Join me next time as we uncover ten Power, Protest & Progress locations for our next episode of A History of England in 100 places.
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group. When it feels irreplaceable, trust Ecclesiastical.