June 8th, 2009 admin

For the second year running I have two framed pieces included in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London.  ‘Taxis cross the frozen Lena river, Yakutsk’ 2004 (40×30″) and ‘Lounge of former sanitorium, Sludyanka’ 2005 (40×30″), both from my Motherland series, are on display at the RA from 8 June – 16 August.

The Summer Exhibition is the largest open submission contemporary art exhibition in the world, drawing together a wide range of new work by both established and unknown living artists. In its 241st year, it includes around 1200 works and this year’s exhibition coordinators are Royal Academicians Will Alsop, Ann Christopher and Eileen Cooper. The theme this year is Making Space.


© John Roberts, 2009

My photographs appear in the John A. Roberts Friba Gallery, which was hung by Richard Wilson and Eileen Cooper, and can be seen in the installation photograph above (on the bottom left and bottom right of the image). Thanks to my Dad for taking the photographs and who, by the way, is no relation of John A. Roberts, the retired international Architect and a Fellow of The Royal Institute of British Architects (FRIBA)!

The room is largely devoted to photographic work and as the introductory wall text explains “In the old days, reactionary opinion would have been horrified at the presumptuous advent of photography in the hallowed portals of the Royal Academy. But now it seems absolutely right to acknowledge the forceful presence of photographic media in art practice.”


© John Roberts, 2009

Much like strawberries at Wimbledon, the Summer Exhibition is an annual fixture on London’s social calendar, with visitors flocking to see the works of both professional and amateur artists, while sipping on Pimms. This is especially true of Buyers’ Day where the atmosphere is convivial but competitive, as people jostle to see the exhibits, while also trying to pick up a bargain (I was thrilled to discover an orange dot under one of my pictures!).

The exhibition is loved and hated in equal measure, and is amusingly described in an article in The Times this week as “the art world’s annual jumble sale: you can pick up anything from a vast canvas by a venerable Royal Academician to a tiny print by some talented amateur.”


© John Roberts, 2009

The idea of an art exhibition as a spectator sport brings me nicely on to the Derby Day at Epsom Racecourse, another hugely popular event on the social calendar, which took place last Saturday. As discussed previously on the blog, the Epsom Derby was famously portrayed in oil on canvas by William Powell Frith in his painting The Derby Day (1856-8). The painting of the crowds at Epsom on Derby Day itself drew crowds to the exhibtion room at the Royal Academy in 1858 and proved so popular that rail had to be put up to keep back the crowds.


William Powell Frith, The Derby Day (1856-8). Oil on canvas.

The Derby is considered one of the most prestigious flat thoroughbred horse races in the world. The first recorded race took place in 1661. For spectators, the Derby has long been known for its unique party atmosphere and for the full range of social classes on view. Tens of thousands of people flock to a public area known as The Hill, where entry to the centre of the course is free. You could say that this photograph, which will appear in the book, is my attempt at replicating Frith’s wonderfully satirical painting-


Derby Day, Epsom Downs Racecourse, Surrey, 7th June 2008 © Simon Roberts


May 6th, 2009 admin

It’s 8pm and I’m currently sat in my office writing the final text for We English, while outside I can hear the Chanctonbury Ring Morris Men performing on the street. You may remember from my previous blog post, it was nearly a year to the day when Sarah, Jemima and I left Brighton on our grand tour of England in the Talbot Swift motorhome to the sound of the Chanctonbury boys singing us off!

Watch them perform one of their numbers –


September 1st, 2008 admin

Continuing my weekly dispatch in The Times, week 14 was taken at Ennerdale and Kinniside Show, Cumbria.

Ennerdale and Kinniside Show, Ennerdale, Cumbria, 27th August 2008

Owners retrieve their hounds on the finish line after a race at the Ennerdale and Kinniside Show. Although sometimes referred to as ‘the poor man’s fox hunting’, hound trailing is one sport that may be said to challenge wrestling and fell running for the affection and loyalty of Cumbrians. Rarely seen outside of the county, hound trailing has no long history yet it has become one of the most characteristic sporting events in the Lake District social calendar.

This week we’ll be in Northumbria.



August 30th, 2008 admin

I should also give a mention to fell running, another regular fixture at the Cumbrian county show. Fell running is the sport of running off road, over upland country where the gradient climbed is a significant component of the difficulty. The name arises from the origins of the sport on the fells of northern England, especially those in the Lake District.

Fell runners compete in the senior guides race at the Ennerdale and Kinniside Show

When and where fell racing began is unknown, but as early as 1850 it was taking place at Grasmere. The participants ran up a hillside to a flag on the summit of the fell, then returned as fast as they could to the starting point where the winner was greeted by a band playing ‘See the conquering hero.’

Anyone with the stamina to stay the course can participate. Traditionally farmers, farm workers and shepherds were involved. Today there are countless races during the summer with men, women and children (most shows have junior races for children as young as 10) running the fells around the county.

The English Hill Championship Race at Grasmere Sports & Show

I witnessed several races at the Grasmere Sports & Show last weekend. While it took me nearly 35 minutes to climb to the summit of the race route (admitedly I was carrying the 5×4 and a rather heavy tripod), the winning runner in the English Hill Championship Race, Rob Jebb, finished the race in a staggering 12 minutes and 38 seconds – only 17 seconds outside the record!

Such are the passions surrounding the sport, the fell running legend Joss Naylor recently urged the organisers of the Olympics to include the sport in the 2012 London Olympics. Joss, 72, made his comments after he joined Sir Chris Bonnington in climbing to the top of Scafell Pike on Sunday to raise the Olympic flag. 

To find out more about the sport, read Richard Askwith’s critically acclaimed book Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-running and Obsession. 



August 29th, 2008 admin

One of the highlights of a county show in Cumbria is the traditional local sport of Cumberland & Westmorland Wrestling. C&WW has an ancient history, it is thought the Vikings brought the sport to England, however its glory days occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Wrestlers at the Grasmere Lakeland Sports & Show, 1903

In the mid-nineteenth century, wrestling had acquired a very wide popularity, attracting both competitors and spectators from inside and outside Cumbrian boundaries. In 1851 at Flan How, Robert Atkinson of Sleagill, Westmorland, met William Jackson of Kinneyside, Cumberland, for the Championship of England. The contest, for a purse of £300, attracted one of the largest crowds ever to witness the sport with an estimated 10,000 spectators. Atkinson won, by three fans to one.

Two junior wrestlers in traditional costume compete at this year’s Gosforth Show

To begin a match, the wrestlers must “tekk hod” – linking their fingers together behind the back of their opponent. This can take quite a while! The contest is ‘best of three falls’. If the hand hold is broken, that also constitutes a fall. In the 18th and 19th centuries, men competed for substantial cash prizes and local status. In these centuries, match fixing was a problem – it was known as ‘barneying’. Wrestling always takes place on grass.

18649 Private Henry Walsh 

While researching the sport I discovered that one of my distant relatives, Henry Walsh, (my Mum’s cousins grandfather) was a champion Cumberland wrestler winning between 1910-12. Born in Cleator Moor, Walsh was brought up in the town of Frizington. His wrestling career came to an abrupt end with the onset of the First World War. He enlisted with the Cumberland 3rd Border Regiment and was one of many soldiers gassed in battle. Sent back to the UK to recuperate, he died soon after aged just 27.

George Steadman

Of all the heroic figures celebrated in the annals of wrestling, none can equal George Steadman of Asby, near Appleby. In 1900 at the age of fifty-four, he decided to quite the ring having won the Heavyweight Championship at Grasmere on no fewer than seventeen occasions.



August 29th, 2008 admin

I’ve found the community noticeboard – often found outside shops, churches and village halls, as well as in the local newspaper – a valuable resource, both in terms of finding out about events happening during my stay but also as a gauge of local interest.


For instance, here are a few events listed in the Whitby Gazette, August 12th –

  • St Hilda’s Church garden party will be held in the grounds of the Old Recotry in Sneaton by kind permission of Ian Buckle, today at 2.30pm. There will be the usual stalls, tombola and competitions and farmhouse teas will be served int eh village hall.
  • The Goathland Walking Group meets at the shops on Thursday at 10am.
  • Sleights Horticultural and Industrial Society will hold its 127th annual show on Saturday on Sleights sportsfield, Lowdale Lane, 1.30-4pm. Admission adults £1.50, children 50p, concessions £1.
  • Whitby Young Farmers’ Club sponsored walk in aid of Pancreatic Cancer UK – Gallon walk from Mallyan Spout, Goathland is on Friday, for sponsor forms and details contact Kathryn on 810202.
  • The Dalesmen are holding their annual garden party on August Bank Holiday, Monday 25 August, 10am-4pm, at Waites House, Goathland, the home of the choir’s president, Audrey Smith. Admission is free but cream teas are available for purchase throughout the day. There will be a cake, plant and bric-a-brac stalls and a tombola. The Dalesmen Singers will be doing two singing spots during the day at noon and 2pm.
  • Robin Hood’s Bay Bowling Club Tuesday afternoon whilst drives taken place at 2pm in the bowling club. New players welcome.



And in a round-up of last week’s events The Westmorland Gazette, August 29th, reports –

  • Despite the recent poor weather, the Barbon and Middleton Flower Show had more entrants than usual. A new class for oven-baked cakes by men only was well supported, and for the first time a visitors’ choice was held and was won by Janet Greenwood with a knitted Herdwick wool throw.
  • Beetham WI celebrated its 90th anniversary year with a garden party in a member’s garden. Jane Binney, vice-chairman of the Cumbria-Westmorland Federation, gave a resume of the 90 years of its existence, and thanked past and present presidents and members for their help in keeping alive a worthwhile institute.
  • Kendal Fellwalkers explored the fells near Wasdale during their B walk. From the roadside near Santon Bridge, they climbed to the little-frequented summit of Irton Fell. There were good views of Wastwater as they made their way along the grassy ridge above the Wastewater screes.
  • Geoff Harrison won the Bowling Leasgill Trophy in a closely fought contest. Gordon Coleclough was runner up.
  • The latest STEPS walk was through Trowbarrow Quarry to Hazelslack Tower and back via Haweswater. Those take part saw dragonflies, butterflies and hardly any people.



August 23rd, 2008 admin

August’s unseasonably wet weather has played havoc with Cumbria’s county shows after the region saw almost an entire month’s worth of rainfall within the first 12 days. In the past week alone over half a dozen county shows have been cancelled due to flooded fields, among them the Keswick Agricultural Show, Lunesdale Show, Hawkshead Agricultural Show and Rydal Sheepdog Trials and Hound Show. The latter was cancelled for only the third time in its 106-year history.


The county show has been a summer fixture in most Cumbrian towns and villages for over a century and has always been of vital importance to the local community. Many of the shows have managed to remain genuinely traditional Lakeland affairs. So I was particularly disappointed to hear that the Patterdale Dog Day had been cancelled this week due to a waterlogged field. The show has kept to its original format and fiercely resisted the lure of commercialization.

This is in stark contrast to many of the national agricultural shows such as The Royal Show which I attended earlier this year, where I counted an astonishing 48 corporate sponsors including HSBC, Trinity Private Wealth Management, RAC, Muller, Renotherm foam insulation, McDonalds and all the major supermarket chains who were trumpeting their support of British farmers. (Such as M&S, one of the major ‘partners’ of the show, who had a large hospitality tent for their clients).


I’m planning to attend the Grasmere Sports And Show this weekend so decided to phone the organizers to check that it would still be going ahead. The reply I got from the director of the show was definitive: “Young man, Grasmere Sports has been running since 1852 and never been cancelled. It went ahead during both World Wars so it’s going to take a lot more than a few drops of rain to stop us this year!”

One show that did beat the rain this week was held at Gosforth (it only went ahead following an emergency committee meeting on Monday). It was a very understated affair with the traditional mix of horse and pony displays, Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestling, a local produce tent and various competitions. Peter Wright’s honey won the best exhibit in the section, while Gosforth WI took first prize in their category with their exhibit ‘A leisurely lunch’. In the horticulture tent, Mark Hewertson, who won in the gladioli, pansies and fuschia categories, was named the Best in Show. My favourite competition judging took place in the poultry tent where Robert Brown, from Uldale, took the top prize with his clay/wheaten. 


The Ennerdale and Kinniside Show also went ahead despite driving rain. It took place at Kirkland Leaps showfield. The event started life in 1895 as a village flower show and “Scholars Picnic” with the sole purpose of raising money to send the children of Ennerdale and Kinniside school on a day trip.


From 1900 sheep were introduced, then sports and other livestock until it became known as T’laal Royal. Typical in its links with the valley, village and farming communities Ennerdale Show has also had a special relationship with the people of industrial West Cumbria. 



August 23rd, 2008 admin

I spent last Friday enjoying a crash course in the sport of pigeon fancying, with the very amiable Billy Marr as my tutor. While thirty of his pigeons were enjoying their daily fly, Billy ran me through his techniques for breeding, training and racing pigeons. Like most pigeon fanciers, Billy was born into the sport. Along with his two brothers he has been breeding and flying pigeons for over 30 years from his loft in the North Allotment in the town of Easington. (A town based around the local colliery, which closed in 1993. It was also where most of Stephen Daldry’s film Billy Elliot was shot).

During a race, all the pigeons start from a transport truck which can be parked up to 200 miles away, but the finish line is each pigeon’s home loft. Each race has a distance, but not all the pigeon’s fly the same distance. The first pigeon to reach its loft isn’t necessarily the winner. The fastest flyer, calculated in yards per minute, wins the race.

Each member has a clock synchronized with the club’s master clock. The distance from each owner’s loft to the start of the race has been surveyed and calculated. Each pigeon wears a registration band on one leg and a rubber band on the other. In the Easington Working Men’s Club that night I watched Billy and his fellow members of the South East Durham Federation synchronize their clocks for tomorrow’s race. 

The pigeon’s rubber band is the ‘message’ it’s carrying. That message goes into the clock, and the clock marks the time the pigeon returns. The pigeon’s time of return is used to figure the speed of the bird and crown a race winner.

I found it fascinating to witness Billy’s devotion to his pigeons – a species Ken Livingstone famously described as “flying rats”. In the north-east of England, where pigeon racing is still popular enough to support hundreds of local clubs, a handful of wonderfully named federations such as the Up North Combine (which Billy is a member of) and the West Durham Amalgamation and weekly races contested by tens of thousands of pigeons, the tradition and the passion are deeply ingrained.

The sport requires a huge time commitment and for those who want to win, and it is no longer a particularly cheap hobby. Billy feeds them corn that costs over £10 a bag and every bird receives an annual vaccination against paramyxovirus to keep it in peak condition. It costs between 50p and £1 to enter a pigeon in a race, which may be contested by up to 6,000 birds, but the prize money is modest (the winners at a recent national event shared a £4,000 pot). Buying birds for breeding can be expensive, however – the record is £110,000 for a single pigeon  (Invisible Spirit bought by 

Young people are not exactly flocking to pigeon racing, and everyone concedes that the sport has been in decline since the glory days of the 1950s. Peter Bryant, general manager of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, says it loses about 2,000 members a year. “We call it the Sony PlayStation and David Beckham syndrome,” he says. “It’s very difficult to get youngsters into the sport. The old racers are dying and the youngsters aren’t coming through.”

For a comprehensive background to the sport in the UK go to this link.


I’ve just been looking at Nick Rowling’s book The Art Handbook (which seems to be out of print) in which there’s an interesting chapter on the theme of leisure in art.

Here’s his introduction-

“Play and recreation are common to all societies, though the degree to which people can relax and enjoy their leisure various enormously. Sex, class, cultural and age differences also influence the ways in which pleasures can be channeled and permitted in all societies, with the tacit acknowledgement that while the rich have both more time and money to indulge their tastes, the poor are expected to work, and only enjoy themselves in limited ways. The rituals of popular entertainment and the provision of the simplest of toys could nevertheless result in innumerable pleasures as Bruegel’s great painting shows. Furthermore, one person’s leisure is often dependent upon another’s labour, as many of these circus, theatre, marriage and inn scenes make explicit.

Religious festivals throughout Christian Europe became the focus of communal recreation, as well as being occasions for markets, street entertainments, drinking and love-making. That some of those festivals hark back to the rituals and beliefs of pre-Christian cults is evident from paintings like Goya’s Burial of the Sardine and Manet’s Bullfight. Such festivals were invariably associates with feasting and drinking, and in Flemish and Dutch painting in particular, a moralizing message against drunkenness, lechery and gluttony were clearly intended. Gambling scenes also attracted Flemish and Dutch artists who liked to stress the avarice of crooked gamblers and gullibility of simple-minded punters, and satirists like Rowlandson in the Hazard Room saw gambling in eighteenth-century England as a metaphor of greed itself.

The Burial of the Sardine, Francisco de Goya, 1812-1819, Real Academia De Bellas Artes, Madrid

The Bullfight, Edouard Manet c.1865-67, The Art Institute of Chicago

Naturally, leisure has a context. The different worlds of men and women in bourgeois Europe is particularly marked in painting where women are often depicted alone in their homes, reading, writing, dressing and decorating themselves or perhaps waiting for lovers. The subject of fetes champétre or picnics was popular, not simply because of the possibility it offered of linking a contemporary scene of the delights of landscape, though when Manet, in Déjenuer sur l’herbe, produced a modern version of Giorgione-Titian’s painting, the explicit eroticim of the scene outraged contemporary morality.

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, Edouard Manet 1863, Musée d’Orsay

Sport too has been popular theme for artists since ancient times: wrestlers, boxers and charioteers decorate innumerable Greek vases, as do hunting scenes and bullfights. Hunting became a courtly pleasure both in medieval Europe and in Mughal India where particular animals were reserved for the dangerous and gubious pleasures of the nobility and where artists were commissioned to record the heroic and bloody exploit of their masters.”

I was interested in his reference to one man’s leisure being another man’s work. This was particularly true of the grouse shooting which I attended last week, where there were as many staff working (game keepers, dog handlers, drivers etc) as there were members of the shooting party.

The head gamekeeper on the shoot (seen in the centre of the photograph) was George Thompson, 52, of Pickering. Mr Thompson has spent the last 17 years nurturing the heather moorland of the 7,000 acre Spaunton Estate (owned by George Wynn-Darley) on the North Yorkshire Moors. After years of working as a scaffolder, he became a gamekeeper in 1991, and was promoted to head moorland keeper at Spaunton in 1999. This year he has been named Gamekeeper of the Year, organised by Farmers Weekly and the Country Landowners Association Game Fair.


August 18th, 2008 admin

On the subject of greyhound racing (see my last post on Walthamstow Stadium) I came across this intriguing photograph from the Times Archive titled ‘Keeping the dogs up to scratch’. The caption reads: All on a summer’s days, girls from the greyhound kennels in Wandsworth, southewest London, put some of the dogs through their paces over hurdles in August 1939.


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