The Art Insider: April '18

This image: one of the many paintings at The Court of Redonda

Ruthie Collins gives you the lowdown on arty happenings around Cambridge in April 

A is for April, full of abundance and spring sunshine! It’s also for ‘acorn’. But did you know that ‘acorn’ is a word that’s been removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, along with scores of others relating to the natural world? The words have been replaced with new ones relating to technology, causing mass outrage. This was the inspiration for Robert Macfarlane, Fellow of Emmanuel College and award-winning writer, to write The Lost Words, celebrating these beautiful words with poetic ‘spells’, to incant their return; a praise-song to the living world around us. “There is an old kind of magic for finding what is missing, and for summoning what has vanished,” he says. “If the right spells are spoken, then the words might return.”

Macfarlane is also a patron for the Cambridge Literary Festival, and is appearing at the event this month for a celebration of words and nature which promises to be
a real treat for fans of The Lost Words – which is well-stocked in Waterstones, where you can pick up a copy. He’s also appearing with acclaimed artist Jackie Morris, whose haunting, nostalgic illustrations bring the words to life throughout. 

Other highlights of the festival include an appearance from Helen Pankhurst with Jane Robinson, chaired by the founder of the Herstory project, Alice Wroe. Helen is the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and her book Deeds Not Words offers a timely reminder of the 100th anniversary of women winning the vote. Join her and social historian Jane Robinson, author of Hearts and
Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote
, on 14 April, as they reflect on the legacy these extraordinary women left behind – plus what needs to be done today. 

“Being whisked away, inspired by an artist's sense of possibility"

Fans of Beijing-born, Cambridge-based artist Chen Xi will be delighted that her exhibition at The High Tea Club, 160 Mill Road, has been extended until the end of June. Teas and Dreams is a glorious journey through Xi’s magical landscape, with her comic books also on sale, plus many original drawings. It’s also a goodbye to the city, says Xi. “It is my last exhibition in Cambridge before I move to Manchester,” she tells me. “I have presented some art works that I have shown in different places during the time I lived in Cambridge, also the books I wrote and drew about Cambridge and my life as a Chinese artist here. This final show is my farewell to this wonderful little place. Teas and dreams will always be my inspirations.” While at the show, Xi recommends we try the winter rooibos tea which comes with almond snowflakes – hopefully this won’t be a reflection of the weather this month! During her ten years in Cambridge, she has published 16 books and describes Cambridge as ‘very international; people are so open, it’s a great place for artists to work.’ Watch out Manchester! 

These magical worlds that artists create with their work are often what we as the audience love when we experience a show, or read a book – ‘a fictional present... a possible future reality’ (novelist Javier Marías). That feeling of being whisked away, inspired by an artist’s sense of possibility – helping us not only spot the magic in imagination, but the magic in our spirit. A dazzling display of this is Stephen Chambers’ The Court of Redonda, now showing at The Heong Gallery, Downing College. A court of mavericks; quirky, creative and brimming with colour, this is a jaw-dropping tribute to diversity in all its richness. 

Chambers created the 101 portraits, which glow with contemporary, everyday detail, but are imbued with a haunting gravitas, invoked with references to the hidden shadows of historical portraits. With each character given a quirky title too (my fave is ‘Steaming Agnes’), the whole show radiates humour – a comical, yet graceful honouring of what curator Emma Hill calls ‘the collective human spirit’. In modern day times, it’s always good to be reminded of our creative human spirit, bringing us together. Have a fantastic April all.