The Violet Hour + Anne Davey Orr
First there was London’s hottest hotelier. Then there was Ireland’s most charitable chairman. Hot on their high heels comes the polymathic Anne Davey Orr. For once, Lavender’s Blue are lost for words. Maybe that’s what happens when we interview the suave former editor and publisher of the UK and Ireland’s longest running architectural publication. The Violet Hour, an unmissable annual event, this time round is one mega quote. Easy!
Anne was born in Downpatrick and spent her early childhood in Killyleagh, County Down, a town dominated by a fairytale castle built in 1180 and strategically located overlooking Strangford Lough to defend the town against the Vikings. It was adapted in the 1850s by the architect Sir Charles Lanyon. The castle has a colourful history which includes murder, a contested inheritance and a Judgement of Solomon. It’s now inhabited by the Rowan Hamilton family and is marketed as a self catering destination. Anne remembers going with her mother to the castle’s market garden to buy vegetables.
Educated at the St Louis Grammar School, Kilkeel, County Down where she boarded for seven years while her family moved to County Louth, her fondest memory is of her teacher Sister Mary Gertrude who also mentored the famous singing trio The Priests. Anne completed a Craft Diploma at Belfast College of Art and a Diploma in Art at Edinburgh College of Art, now Heriot Watt University, where she specialised in sculpture. She was awarded a Postgraduate Scholarship and two Travelling Scholarships, one to France where she studied the work of Rodin, and one to Italy where she studied Marino Marini. During her postgraduate year she had a studio in Inverleith Place Lane, Edinburgh, and was surprised one evening to have a visit from a short dark man to enquire about her studio. It had been his he said. Only later did she find out she’d had a visit from the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. His mosaic at Tottenham Court Road Underground Station was partly removed to make way for Crossrail. The parts removed have found a new home in Edinburgh University
While at Edinburgh she was elected President of the Sculpture and of the Drama Society whose former President was the playwright John Antrobus. She wrote and produced two plays one of which is now in the archive of the Traverse Theatre in the city. Anne’s interest in theatre stems from her association with the legendary Mary O’Malley, founder of the Lyric Players Theatre Belfast, as a scene painter. In later years Anne was elected to chair the theatre’s board, setting in motion a review of its governance.
This process led to the creation of the theatre’s new award winning building by O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects. Through Edinburgh Drama Society, Anne met the film director Peter Watkins and at his request marshalled a design team to work on his ground breaking BBC film Culloden shot in the Scottish Highlands. Peter then invited her to London to work on his film The War Game for BBC. Both films attracted considerable attention. Culloden, because it was an entirely new format for television drama and The War Game because it was considered too realistic to be broadcast at the time and was only shown in selected cinemas until comparatively recently. Subsequently Anne joined the BBC, initially training as a designer in London. She worked on high profile programmes such as Doctor Who and Top of the Pops. While at the BBC, she won Vogue Magazine’s Young Writer | Designer of the Year Award. Anne was subsequently sent to train as a producer, joining Arts Features. She was production assistant on the BBC2 film Rather Awake and Very Eager and worked with the producer Julien Jebb. She also directed the nationally broadcast Take It Or Leave It literary quiz which featured the writers John Betjeman, Anthony Burgess and Antonia Fraser among others.
Anne then moved to BBC Belfast to work in design and production. She initiated and directed a series called Where Are They Now? which revitalised interest in the careers of personalities that had been forgotten. Anne designed a series of schools programmes written by Seamus Heaney for the producer David Hammond. For a number of years Anne covered visual arts and theatre in Northern Ireland for The Guardian and Irish Times.
Anne took a sabbatical when her children Leon and Mary-Ann were born and moved to County Kilkenny with her husband the architect Harry Orr. There, she revived her art practice setting up Legan Castle Design Studio. She won an Irish Arts Council Travel Award to study traditional mosaic making in Ravenna’s Accademia di Belle Arti and exhibited during Kilkenny Arts Week. Her exhibition about The Troubles, titled Images of War, transferred to The Glencree Centre for Reconciliation in Wicklow through the sponsorship of the journalist Kay Hingerty and the encouragement of the late Jack White, Head of Programmes at RTE, who opened the exhibition.
When Plan magazine needed a Northern Correspondent, Anne was approached. That association led to the publication of a brochure for the Festival of Architecture in Belfast for the Royal Society of Ulster Architects which subsequently evolved into the Ulster Architect magazine of which Anne was the founding editor. In the 1980s she purchased the magazine and set up a company to ensure that it would continue in publication. As publisher and editor of an architectural magazine she covered all the main building projects in the UK and Ireland with an eye to the visual arts and heritage projects. She personally interviewed high profile people including Max Clendinning, Edward Cullinan and Richard Rogers as well as covering stories throughout the UK and in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Holland, Italy and Norway. Her company was selected to take part in an entrepreneurial programme between University of Ulster and Boston College. Anne spent six months in the media department of a large advertising agency, Hill Holiday Connors Cosmopolous.
She completed an international publishing course at Stanford University, California, and is one of the founding editors of the art magazine Circa. Anne also published and edited the cross community Irish magazine Causeway as well as Scottish Arts Monthly. Anne also contributed to Building Design, Creative Camera and World Architecture. Somehow, sometime in between for six years she sat on the Historic Buildings Council, chaired the Visual Arts Committee of the Arts Council and chaired the Board of the Lyric Theatre. Other extramural activities included a nine year stint on the Regional Committee of the National Trust. She was a member of the judging panel for the Diljit Rana Bursary at the Department of Architecture, Queen’s University, where she tutored sixth year students on the presentation and marketing of their work. In 2004 Ulster Architect was taken over by a Dublin based company which Anne estimated had the resources to take the publication fully into the digital age. She stayed with the company during the handover period and then determined to return to what she had originally set out to do: paint.
What made her switch from painting to study sculpture, first in Belfast and then in Edinburgh – a move Anne made partially influenced by the stories brought back by her friend the painter J B Vallely – she doesn’t recall. Her period at Edinburgh College of Art was marked by considerable success. It was enhanced further when she was awarded a Royal Scottish Academy Best Student Award, a Postgraduate Scholarship and met her external examiner, the sculptor F E McWilliam. One of Ireland’s best galleries just outside Banbridge is named after him. In 2007 she completed a part time foundation course at the Southern Regional College in Newry which led to a 10 week Foundation Course at Slade School of Art in London, specialising in painting. From there she completed a BA Hons in painting at the University of Ulster gaining a First.
While completing her BA, Anne undertook a project for the European Movement in Northern Ireland which culminated in an exhibition of the national flowers of the nation states of the European Union. The subject was compatible with her coursework and increasing interest in aspects of landscape and landscape painting. The collection of 30 paintings was initially shown at the Harbour Commissioners’ Office, Belfast. Through the sponsorship of Speaker’s Office at Stormont and the Office of the European Commission in Belfast, the exhibition In the Garden of Europe transferred to the Great Hall in Stormont in 2014. It was the backdrop to a visit from the European Economic and Social Committee hosted by the Vice President Jane Morrice, formerly a founder of the Women’s Coalition Party. At Jane’s invitation the exhibition transferred to Brussels in 2015 with an accompanying monograph on the Language of Flowers written by Anne and illustrated with images of her paintings. It subsequently transferred to the offices of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels where it is on permanent display.
On completion of her BA in 2012 Anne moved to London to undertake a Masters in Fine Arts at the University of the Arts. In 2014 she was one of only two artists from Wimbledon College of Arts to have her work selected for the University’s Made in Arts London, an organisation which selects the best work from across the component colleges to promote throughout the capital. Three works were selected and exhibited at the Hampstead Art Fair in 2014. Anne has also exhibited at The Rag Factory, Brick Lane; the Norman Plastow Gallery, Wimbledon; the Image Gallery, Camden; and alongside artists such as Will Alsop, Philida Law and Greyson Perry at the Oxo Tower in London for The National Brain Appeal. Her work for The Rag Factory exhibition was site specific, responding to the factory’s history when it was used by Young British Artists Tracey Emin and Gary Hume as studios. Tongue in cheek, Anne produced a triptych in the form of a religious icon featuring Charles Saatchi, svengali of the YBAs, as a central Christ-like figure holding the catalogue for his Sensation exhibition in which their work was exhibited. Highlighting his midas-like influence on their careers, Tracey Emin’s coat and Gary Hume’s shirt are depicted as monumental relics on either side of him. Images of two of her large paintings were selected for Volume X of International Contemporary Artists published in New York in 2015. Anne is currently working on a narrative portrait of the nurse Edith Cavell who was executed by the Nazis. To mark the 100th anniversary of her death, the painting will hang in the patients’ waiting room of the Edith Cavell Surgery in Streatham Hill.
My Favourite London Hotel… Because I live in London I don’t often stay in hotels in the city but I did stay in the Tower Hotel at Tower Bridge when my daughter was married in London. It’s in a spectacular location with magnificent views of the bridge and the River Thames. Quite a few years ago I found The Manhattan Hotel in Covent Garden almost by accident. Named after Lord Louis Mountbatten, in the opulently relaxed colonial interior, you could almost transport yourself to India as it was when he was the last Viceroy. It’s now part of the Edwardian Hotels group so has probably changed somewhat since then.
My Favourite London Restaurant… I always take advice from my brother Damien and his wife Imelda when they come to London. They are both great foodies who keep me on my toes gastronomically. They lived in London before moving to France about 20 years ago but still visit regularly. So I don’t really have a favourite but I have had really good experiences with them at Brasserie Zédel in Piccadilly which is a slice of medium priced Paris in London, and Vinoteca, Beak Street, Soho. Great atmosphere in both and good value.
My Favourite Local Restaurant… My favourite food is Middle Eastern so I like Beyrouths in Streatham Hill which serves simple Lebanese food, great mint tea and delicious homemade lemonade. For French food I found three courses recently at Côte Brasserie on Battersea Rise faultless. The subdued interior in muted green is cleverly lit to soften the glow over the clientele and again good value.
My Favourite Weekend Destination… It used to be Ragdale Hall Health Hydro and Thermal Spa in Melton Mowbray where I took my family one year for a total chillout divorced from the commercialism of Christmas. Now I think it is Kelly’s Hotel in Wexford, Ireland. Architecture as such has bypassed it in that it has grown like topsy over the years due to its popularity, particularly with families. Situated right on the beach on the Wexford coast, it has one of the best private art collections in Ireland, a selection from it hanging on the hotel’s walls: Hockney, Picasso, Miró, and good contemporary Irish art as well. Sculpture defines the surrounding gardens and the collection is catalogued in a book which can be purchased at reception. The labels of their own very good wine collection and the menus for their creative and wonderful food are designed by the artist Bill Corzier.
My Favourite Holiday Destination… I have great memories of holidaying in Gozo, the neighbouring island to Malta in the Mediterranean. A stay at the wonderful Ta’ Cenc Hotel would be a real treat. A trip to La Colombe d’Or in Saint-Paul de Venice, one of the oldest medieval towns on the French Riviera near Nice, would be an alternative. Famed for its association with glitterati, Catherine Deneuve, Courtney Love and Meryl Streep have rented rooms there. It is a 16th century stone house which boasts a private collection of paintings by Braque, Matisse, Miró and Picasso. The artists paid for their lodgings by donating works. The town of Saint-Paul de Venice winds around the hilltop crammed with artists’ studios and little boutiques all under the brooding eye of Rodin’s Le Penseur at the top. Close by is The Foundation Maeght with its Miró Garden and superb galleries.
My Favourite Country House… While I am drawn to return to the Villa Saraceno, one of the mansions designed by Andrea Palladio near Vincenza in the Veneto in northeast Italy which inspires a deceptive sense of grandiose living, the less grandstanding Rathmullan House in County Donegal wins me over largely because of its location on a seemingly endless beach – blue flag and with spectacular views of the Fanad Peninsula. It was built in the 1760s and is a typical Georgian house of the period used as a bathing house by the Bishop of Derry. One of Ireland’s leading architects, Liam McCormick, designed a new pavilion extension in 1969 and the hotel has been extended several times since then. In spite of that it still feels like visiting someone’s home because many of the original features of the house have been retained and the staff are wonderfully friendly.
My Favourite Building… I have written about many buildings over the years for various publications so I have a number of favourites including Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and the buildings of the architect who most influenced him, Louis Henry Sullivan – an almost forgotten figure – known as the father of the skyscraper which he saw as very specific to America. Although seldom credited with it, he coined the phrase ‘form follows function’. Louis’ Transportation Building for the Chicago World Fair of 1893 is a wonderful expression of architecture on the cusp of change and the National Farmer’s Bank of Owatonna in Minnesota of 1908 has been described as the most beautiful bank in the world. Tragically his life ended in poverty and alcoholism. My favourite building by a living architect is Ted Cullinan’s Downland Gridshell, Weald and Downland Open Air Museum of 2002. It’s a wonderful organic expression of contemporary design using traditional techniques. Ted is founder of Cullinan Studio. I sat beside him at a dinner at Queen’s University when he talked about admiring the traditional blue barns he observed on his way in from the airport. A puzzled look fell over the surrounding faces. Was this part of our architectural heritage we had missed? Was it not a case someone asked of whatever paint fell off the back of a lorry at the time they were being painted. Like the time I was suggesting programme ideas to the BBC in Belfast. I’d noticed all houses on the Shankill Road were painted dark reds, browns and ochres but houses on the Falls Road seemed to favour more pastel colours such as light grey, pale blue and yellow. Was this evidence of a significant cultural difference we should be looking at? Someone asked me had I never noticed what colours the ships in Belfast docks were painted. Aha – no expression of social significance involved at all.
My Favourite Novel… A hard one for me because I read so much and have very catholic taste. Almost anything by Eric Newby but particularly Slowly Down the Ganges and Round Ireland in Low Gear. They are laugh-out-loud books as is another favourite called Skippy Dies by Dubliner Paul Murray, recommended to me by a Welsh rugby player at the Old Alleynians Rugby Club in Dulwich College where my son used to play rugby. I also like the works of Sebastian Barry – On Canaan’s Side and A Temporary Gentleman, and Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, dramatized in 2014 by Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw at The Barbican which is provocative, moving and beautifully written.
My Favourite Film… Another difficult choice because I have very schizophrenic taste in film. My favourites include Last Year in Marienbad by Alain Resnais, written by Alain Robbe-Grillet and starring Delphine Seyrig; Jules et Jim by Francois Truffaut starring Jeanne Moreau; Rocco and His Bothers by Luchino Visconti starring Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale; Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Weekend and the surreal Un Chien Andalou by Louis Bunuel and Salvador Dalí. On the other hand I loved the broad sweep of Lawrence of Arabia with that wonderful score by Maurice Jarre. I have just seen Spotlight which I think is brilliantly made. Directed by Tom McCarthy, it is my favourite film of the moment.
My Favourite TV Series… They are all legal dramas, two are American and one is British. Suits was written by Arron Korsh. The Good Wife was created by Robert and Michelle King and BBC’s Silk created by Peter Moffat in which Maxine Pike steals the show.
My Favourite Play… I thought it was going to be Hangmen by Martin McDonagh whose work I love. It is on at Wyndham’s Theatre at the moment, transferred from the Royal Court where it got rave reviews. But I didn’t find it as good as his other plays such as the Lieutenant of Inishmaan, The Beauty Queen of Leenan, and in particular Pillowman which I saw at the Cotteslow. So I have to say that my favourite at the moment is Red which I saw at the Donmar Warehouse starring Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne. It was brilliantly written by John Logan and brilliantly acted by Alfred Molina. To make a play about how Mark Rothko painted riveting was an incredible feat which Michael Grandage, the director, and John Logan pulled off with incredible brio.
My Favourite Opera… Mozart’s Magic Flute. I have loved Mozart since my school days when I did a study of Symphony No 41, better known as the Jupiter – his last. On a visit to Italy after the Venice Opera House had been burned down, a French opera troop presented a very modernistic version of The Flute in a specially constructed temporary theatre in Venice. Travelling by motor launch to this very French off-the-wall interpretation heightened the whole experience making it unforgettable. La Fenici was reconstructed “as it was, where it was,” as he said, to the designs of architect Aldo Rossi before he died.
My Favourite Artist… I have two: Peter Doig because he imbues his landscape paintings with a sense of ‘presence’. There is a feeling of ‘the hour before the dawn’, of menace and the unknown with an uncategorisable technique. My second favourite is the East German artist Anselm Kiefer. I went to his retrospective at the Royal Academy last year and was almost speechless at the breadth of his work. Mostly I admire him for how he stepped up to German history with all its connotations and for his continued experimentation with various forms of expression and media.
My Favourite London Shop… Cornelissen + Son, the artists’ supply shop on Great Russell Street. This is the sort of shop I could eat. I am like a child in a sweetie shop when I go in. Its list of famous customers is endless and includes Francis Bacon, Audrey Beardsley and Rex Whistler. It was here that I learnt that Francis Bacon preferred to paint on the wrong side of the canvas.
My Favourite Fashion Designer… I like classic clothes and good tailoring so I have a soft spot for Jean Muir. I also like the simplicity of Armani. When I am in Donegal I call on Magee to have a look at their tweeds. My mother gave me a magnificent tailored coat in a beautiful mix of Donegal tweed which, unfortunately, I need to lose a few kilos to wear.
My Favourite Pastime… Definitely reading and – running almost neck and neck – drawing.
My Favourite Thing… At the moment my MacBook Air.