Britain & Ireland: Contemporary Art and Architecture Handbook – Sidra Stich

Sidra Stich’s guide to contemporary art, architecture and design in Britain and Ireland offers an accessible, reasonably full overview of the national cultural scene. The London section is the largest and the most useful, ensuring that the London art scene, with its maze of small and often intimidating galleries in Hoxton and Soho, is demystified successfully. Opening times, website addresses and other useful data are provided, emphasizing that this book’s strength lies in its utility as a guide book rather than in any strong statement it has to make about the nature of the contemporary British art scene.

One of the best parts of this book is its fluent and lengthy invective regarding the elitism and ugliness of the new British Library’s design. It indicates that this guide aims at comprehensive coverage rather than panegyric, and the critique of the alienating entrance hall and the tedious reading rooms in comparison to the beautiful former reading room at the British Museum rings all too true for anyone familiar with the British Library. The inclusion of entries on The Courtauld Gallery and The Ivy restaurant are dubious but in general this book provides a hundred genuinely useful pages on London art.

Indeed, the book has a comprehensible but striking London bias. For Londoners this is a plus point but it may prove vexing for those seeking really in-depth coverage of the art scene in, for example, Belfast. Entries such as that for Oxford are mystifyingly eclectic and too brief, suggesting that this book is somewhat insecure in its own mandate to focus upon the contemporary cultural scene in Britain and Ireland. Naturally Oxford’s highly important Museum of Modern Art is included, but the inclusion of Blackwell’s Art Bookshop is rather odd, and that old stalwart the Ashmolean Museum is not renowned as an up-and-coming center for modern art. The Florey Building is the only structure singled out as of sufficient architectural merit to deserve inclusion in the section on Oxford, despite Stich’s acknowledgement that it is ‘mannered and lifeless’. Nearby Henley-On-Thames gets a much more interesting mention for its new River and Rowing Museum, and the imposing Henley Royal Regatta Headquarters also justifiably appears.

The least useful and most irritating components of this work are the brief introductory paragraphs on regional centers. There is really no need to be told that ‘a visit to historic Cambridge, with its stately buildings, courtyards, perfectly trimmed lawns…is a delight’, nor does it seem especially pertinent that Temple Bar in Dublin dates back to the first Celtic settlements. These redundant entries have the air of space-fillers and are not required in such a rigorously researched book, focused on a particular cultural aspect. Generally, though, the book is geared towards maximum convenience and pleasure for the reader. Inclusion of both thematic and alphabetical indices is a useful way in to a crowded range of entries. The black and white photos, though hardly a visual feast, suit their subject matter, looking suitably cool, modern and minimalist.

This guide inevitably becomes something of a jack of all trades, master of none. The book would benefit from a stronger eye to either avid contemporary art lovers or tourists seeking an introductory guide. Nevertheless it is far better on practicalities such as journey times and entry prices than most other guides of its ilk, and it highlights new cultural spaces worth viewing for even the most jaded British and Irish culture vultures.

– Emma French

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