Through the cloisters

Through the cloisters

The UCL cloisters are an accessible hot spot for arts and culture. Follow a tour of the current exhibits right on our doorstep. 

During the weekend of UCL’s Welcome Fair, thousands of students crowded through the North and South Cloisters in search of ways to fill their spare time over the coming year. This annual event is somewhat reflective of the role that the two long hallways play in the day-to-day lives of students: for most of us, they are simply areas we pass through, offering the most direct route between two locations on campus.

In other words, the Cloisters are rarely somewhere that we students go to for the very sake of being there. On the 29th and 30th of September, it’s likely that freshers spent rather more time trying to wade through the crowd to various stalls than examining curious statues and educative posters. It’s the same once term begins. Whether you’re rushing to a 9am lecture, or trudging home after a long day in the library, it can hardly seem the right moment to explore a pop-up exhibition, or spend half an hour in a museum. However, by spending just a small amount of time looking around the Cloisters, you’ll quickly see that they merit far more attention than they seem to receive.

We might begin a tour of the Cloisters at their very northernmost tip, where they meet various other buildings. These include the North Wing, home to the world-renowned Slade School of Fine Art, whose glittering list of alumni includes the likes of Antony Gormley, Eduardo Paolozzi, and Rachel Whiteread. This is particularly appropriate given that where the two buildings join, we find recent works produced by such Slade artists.

On one wall is what looks like a bar chart, but one far more mesmerising than those that you might be used to seeing. This is the Pigment Timeline, a table charting the dates at which various colours have been used on artists’ palettes throughout history. The exhibit is also part of the intriguing Pigment Timeline Project, a multidisciplinary research project exploring connections between UCL departments involving pigment and colour in any aspect of their research.

Over the summer, this corner of the Cloisters was home to another exploration of colour in the form of Slade graduate Onya McCausland’s solo show Five Colours, Five Landscapes. Adorning the wall opposite the Pigment Timeline was the first of five displays spread throughout the cloisters, a striking deep shade of red painted from floor to ceiling. McCausland’s show was the culmination of research she carried out with the assistance of UCL chemists and the UK Coal Authority, to create five new colours derived from waste produced at five former coal fields across the country. They examined the imprint our industrial past leaves on the landscape, as well as how it can be remediated.

While clearly aesthetically pleasing works of art, both the Pigment Timeline and Five Colours, Five Landscapes also offer alluring glimpses into contemporary research carried out at the Slade, as well as how departments at UCL interact with each other and with the outside world.

From these exhibits reflecting current goings-on at UCL, we take a step back through the years as we move towards the Carrara marble statues, which stand between the North and South Cloisters. Opposite the reception desk of the Main Library, we see a half-nude figure holding a drape in her right hand and a bunch of lilies in her left, while a snake grows out of the stone beneath.

This is L’Innocenza Perduta (Lost Innocence) by the 19th century Italian sculptor Emilio Santarelli. L’Innocenza Perduta has clear links to UCL’s beginnings, as it was initially owned by Francis and Louisa Goldsmid before it was bequeathed to the university by the latter. Francis was the son of the one of the original founders of UCL, Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, who donated enormous sums of money to the university in its early days. This support was continued by Francis and Louisa, and, as such, you could say that the statue stands as a monument to the great generosity and support offered by individuals such as these, which undoubtedly helped lay the foundations for UCL to become the prominent establishment that it is today.

While Santarelli might not be an immediately recognisable name to UCL students, the same could not be said for the figure sitting opposite L’Innocenza Perduta. This is the portrait of the British sculptor John Flaxman, by his contemporary, Musgrave Lewthwaite Watson. Flaxman’s influence can be felt in many ways on campus. If you take a few paces back from his portrait and look up through the oculus, you will see a full-scale model of his final masterpiece, St. Michael Overcoming Satan. This imposing work stands at the centre of the Main Library, in the gallery that takes his name (and also famously used as a filming location in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception).

Moving to the South Cloisters, the UCL Art Museum also owes a lot to Flaxman, and particularly his sister-in-law, Maria Denman. It was her donation of his sculpture models and drawings which led to the founding of the Museum’s now vast collection. One of several UCL museums with public access, the Art Museum has reopened its doors in time for first term with a new exhibition, Redress. The show is an exploration of the School’s once prestigious Drapery Drawing Prize, and will be held alongside a series of public events.

All five of the artists featured in Redress are female, reflecting the celebration of female achievement at UCL this year. The UCL Vote 100 programme commemorates 100 years since women won the right to vote in the UK General Election; Vote 100 has a strong presence in this area of campus, and around the corner from the entrance to the Art Museum we can see Female Firsts, a project carried out by UCL artist-in-residence Kristina Clackson Bonnington. Through a series of captivating and intimate portraits, Female Firsts celebrates the diverse achievements of twelve women connected to UCL. Remember to look out for the final exhibition in December, when all twelve works will be displayed alongside each other.

Retracing our steps slightly to the Octagon Gallery, which lies between the Cloisters, we find Disruptors and Innovators, another Vote 100 exhibition curated by UCL Art Collections. Disruptors and Innovators focuses on the struggle for gender equality in higher education, as well as the lack of recognition given to women at UCL despite enormous contributions to their respective fields of society and politics, archaeology, art and science. With a plethora of unique items and fantastically informative interactive screens, the exhibition is well worth a prolonged visit.

Finally, walking to the very end of the South Cloisters and turning left, we find ourselves face-to-face with perhaps the most famous object in the entirety of UCL: the auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham. Considered by many to be the spiritual forebear of UCL, it was Bentham’s ideas that inspired the university’s founders. Having very recently returned from completing, posthumously, a trip to America that he had always wished for in life, he is ready to be marvelled at from up close once again.

So, there we have it. Without even having covered everything in the 150-odd paces it takes to walk through the Cloisters’ passageways, we’ve come across a diverse collection of items and displays reflecting hugely varied aspects of culture and life at UCL, both in the present and from days gone by. The lesson to take from this journey through the Cloisters? Our university is filled with corridors and walkways adorned with all manner of unusual objects and intriguing displays, so try to make time to slow down every now and then, as you never know what you may discover.

This article was originally published in Issue 721 of Pi Magazine. 

Image Credits: Estelle Ciesla