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Are blue plaques supposed to commemorate people or buildings?

Paul Finch
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English Heritage is using wrongheaded justifications to commemorate film-maker Derek Jarman by recognising the wrong building, writes Paul Finch

At the start of this year, I took issue with English Heritage (EH) over its refusal to commemorate the life of film-maker Derek Jarman by putting a blue plaque on the home with which he is most associated, Phoenix House, a Charing Cross Road apartment block. Instead, it wants to put a plaque somewhere in Butler’s Wharf, where Jarman did live but only sporadically, and where he made films in a building that has now largely burned down. 

EH took me to task over another criticism: that their policy is based on a belief that there are too many plaques in Soho and not enough south of the river. I suggested that this policy, at least in respect of Jarman, was a distortion of history and geography.

I thought blue plaques were about memorialising people, but it seems this is wrong. They are about buildings and being ‘fair’

I have now received the following from EH: ‘English Heritage believes that the Blue Plaques scheme should be used to commemorate as great a variety of buildings as possible, and in all areas of Greater London, and we do not believe that this aspiration constitutes either false history or bad geography.’ 

Silly me. I thought the blue plaque scheme was about memorialising people who have made a significant contribution to our national life, but it seems this is wrong. It is about buildings and being ‘fair’. This is nonsense, and of course people who present nonsensical arguments soon have to forget about historical accuracy, if not truth. 

EH claims Jarman lived in a property at Butler’s Wharf for a long period, though it acknowledges that he was frequently not there. You can say that again, because for much of the relevant time he had a flat in Sloane Square; it would make more sense to put a plaque on that, but even more to acknowledge the most obvious place he called home: Phoenix House. 

Perhaps interested parties could seek planning permission to put a plaque up anyway, and let EH continue with a fantasy, thus dishonest, version of history. 

West Palm Beach reinforces art history 

Foster + Partners’ latest completion, the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, was the subject of a splendid opening gala dinner at the museum last Saturday. Founded in 1941 by the industrialist Ralph Norton and his wife Elizabeth, it began life because the couple’s art collection had become too big for their house, and they wanted to give south Florida the cultural institution it lacked. 

The Norton has grown hugely and now has more than 7,600 works in five curatorial departments. Fosters has reworked the building, adding significant new facilities, but these only amount to about 8 per cent of the 13,000m² building; this is a significant retrofit which has exploited the original architecture, by Wyeth, King & Johnson, to huge effect. 

The additional spaces include a huge entrance room (based on Gallery C of the Royal Academy), an auditorium, and a marvellous sculpture garden. Facilities for curators and the education programme have been hugely enhanced. The new and reworked architecture provides an excellent match for a magnificent collection including brilliant Chinese artworks and photography. The first paintings gallery includes work by Braque, Brancusi, Cézanne, De Chirico, Degas, Gauguin, Klee, Monet, Picasso, Pissarro and Soutine. 

Local arts owners and philanthropists have donated generously to an institution that can now provide the right facilities. Most notable is an Oldenburg given by Ronnie Heyman which marks the museum’s newly located entrance. The sculpture is a giant typewriter-script eraser. Who would have thought such an object would have so quickly become mysterious to the young. It looks fabulous. 

Not just wrong but troubling 

Roger Scruton’s suggestion that the Grenfell fire happened because the building was ugly is as absurd as it is unpleasant. He should avoid commenting on the ghastly tragedy of Grenfell until people who know what they are talking about get to the bottom of what happened and why. 

By the way, does he think Glasgow School of Art was ugly too? 

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