Let there be cake: Art Afternoon Tea at Rosewood, London

I had always wanted to experience afternoon tea in London, but was always put off by the stuffiness event. At the Ritz, for example, the dress code is put under ‘terms and conditions’; as a “client responsibility” guests are not permitted to wear jeans for afternoon tea. Apparently cake tastes better when you’re in a tux. This is just not true. Cake is best in loose clothes. Preferably in bed, with Orange is the New Black in the background. So when I realised I was going for afternoon tea for my 21st birthday, and that the dress code was ‘smart casual,’ my mum sewed up the holes in my ripped jeans and we pretended to be posh for the day. 

What differentiates Rosewood from its competition in the capital is that the cakes are treated as individual artworks. Rosewood’s executive pastry chef, Mark Perkins, has curated a selection of art-inspired cakes to accompany finger sandwiches, freshly baked scones and loose tea. His creations are inspired by five of the most globally iconic artists currently exhibited in London including Yayoi Kusuma, Alexander Calder, Banksy, Damien Hurst and Mark Rothko. This novel idea works well on so many levels, because by using the artists’ work as a basis of inspiration, the cake itself becomes an artwork, but in edible form. Rosewood have nailed it – I can’t imagine another theme that would work as effectively embodied in pastry. Politicians, countries, famous figures etc. could all get a little controversial, and cake should never offend. Art afternoon tea seems to have struck gold, because it is about adapting the style into a new miniature version, one that can be recognised, adored and consumed by art fanatics. I’m going to rank and review the cakes, comparing them to their original masterpieces.

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  1. YAYOI KUSUMA

Renowned for her psychedelic colours, patterns and repetition, Japanese artist Kusuma has taken over the international art world one polka dot at a time. For this cake, Perkins drew inspiration from her installation ‘All the Eternal Love I have for Pumpkins’. Rather than merely copying a pumpkin from the work, the cake shows the chef’s original take. I have ranked it the highest because of how visually striking it is, and to me it just screams ‘Kusuma’. Moreover, it tasted as quirky as it looked. It was made from milk chocolate mousse, passionfruit cremeux with chocolate set on chocolate biscuit. Perkins thought that her predilection for yellow and black was best translated into passionfruit and chocolate.

2. ALEXANDER CALDER

This was a structural masterpiece. Fitting for the American sculptor who invented the mobile, the moving sculpture made with suspended shapes that move in response to touch or the air, typically found above a baby’s cot. Disguised as a modernist mobile, this cake was surprisingly incredibly heavy because the inside was densely packed with pistachio bavarois, cherry jelly, pistachio sponge “sprayed” with red chocolate. As I have a predilection for pistachios, this my favourite flavour-wise. I was also astonished by the interior engineering work, as I cut through every cake in half to share, this one did not collapse. The exterior embellishments were a little fragile however, made only coloured chocolate, they fell off when I picked the cake up.

3. BANKSY

The nation’s favourite and a worldwide phenomenon, it would be a difficult task to create a cake that was not identifiable to this mainstream street artist. I think this let down the overall challenge to create something with an innovative spin on an existing artist. It was almost inevitable that the cake would be a brick or building with one of Banky’s iconic stencils on. They had chosen Banky’s 2002 piece ‘Balloon Girl’, which was originally a mural on an East London, but was removed and sold for £500,000 in 2014. Depicting a young girl letting go of a heart-shaped balloon (only that the opaque red icing was not not heart-shaped) the impressive element of this cake was its unusually brick-like texture. It was the richest of the five, and incredibly indulgent. A chocolate cube filled with vanilla cream choux, chocolate creme resting on a salted caramel liquid, I imagine this would take a few miles to burn off. Too much sugar compacted into a 2inch x 2inch box for my liking.

 

4. DAMIEN HIRST

When I think of Hirst I think of sharks or cows preserved in tanks and diamond encrusted skulls. Far less so, I think of his inoffensive and boring dot work. Truth be told, I dislike Hirst. His public response to the retaliation of his unimaginative artwork is pretty tongue and cheek; when people say “anyone could do that” he barks back “but you didn’t, did you?” And he’s made an obscene amount from doing what we could not be bothered to do. It took some time for me to recognise that the cake was based on Hirst’s art, and like his career itself, the cake’s design was a bit boring. The redemptive factor was that it tasted really pleasant, and it offsets the heftiness of the Banksy cake. A white chocolate tart made from cassis jelly, yuzu curd and decorated with dots, it was delightful but didn’t have the shock factor I was expecting – I would have preferred a replica of ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (aka the shark in a tank). That would have been fun.

5. MARK ROTHKO

This was the artist I knew least about. He was a famous abstract expressionist, but all I knew was that he had a thing about painting bold block colours on canvas. I imagine that his was the easiest to translate into cake form, because his work is the least adventurous. The most inventive creative decision would therefore have to be the flavour combination, and this was subtle, light and delicate. This was made from layered coconut sponge, raspberry, coconut mouse and decorated with thin pink and red raspberry chocolate. I thought this was not the one to rave about – it’s structure was not experimental, nor was its embellishments.

I also couldn’t help but notice that this had been done before by many amateur home bakers…markyboy

Located in central London, High Holborn, Rosewood Hotel is anything but an eyesore. Admittedly, while trying to act collected, and not break anything in the process, I did take three trips to the ladies bathroom over the space of two hours to take Snapchats…

The cake art pieces were just one feature of the overall sophisticated experience. The tea, sandwiches, and scones were additionally exquisite. I did not have a big enough stomach capacity to eat it all, and our wonderful waiters kept offering us top ups of our favourites. They were so hospitable, and elaborated on the artists’ stories behind each individual cake. I ended up taking home the scones and a spare Banksy cake. Word of warning: come on a very empty stomach, and wear loose smart casual clothing. This is the first season of art afternoon tea at Rosewood, if you would like to experience these specific varieties for yourself, you must come soon, as new replacement designs are due to replace them. Standard afternoon tea per person is £50 and can be booked online here.

Thoughts about which artists I’d like to see in art form at the Rosewood in future: Louise Bourgeois, Tracy Emin, Max Ernst…

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Train ride home

Suspicions about: The BMW Art Car

I’m not only suspicious about BMW commissioning artist Esther Mahlangu to design and paint the 12th Art Car, I’m also suspicious about its place in the British Museum. I may be 26 years late to the debate, but after seeing the BMW 12th Art Car on its (stationary as it isn’t to be driven, only exhibited) tour around the globe, I thought the topic deserved a rant.

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Me being suspicious in the British Museum

Firstly, BMW have been running an “art project” in which they commission internationally renowned artists to paint the exterior of their latest, greatest and fastest model. Thus far the company have commissioned 19 artists, and unsurprisingly of the impenetrable art world, only two of which are female. The cars have previously been designed by the likes of Andy Warhol and David Hockney, but in 1991, to mark the end of apartheid regime in South Africa, BMW appointed Mahlangu to design the 12th. There are a few issues with marketing this project as “art” as such, because the cars tastefully obscure what is a very clever commercial ploy. The designs inscribed on cars epitomise the failings of aesthetic value in capitalist modernity, because the main signifier of the ‘artwork’ is the BMW, not the work of the artist. For the BMW Art Project, the artist’s relationship to the artwork can be articulated in Marxist terms: the artist becomes a worker employed to do a task, estranged from the products of her/his labour. This is not to suggest BMW omits all artistic freedom, although the company does project an ideal end product onto the artist and the BMW, implicating that the artist does not have free-reign of the “canvas” that is the car’s surface. This is not to suggest that Mahlangu was a mere victim of BMW’s exploitation – before the project she was successful as an artist and continues to be today. In some ways, the car marks progress in the art sector as it draws attention to artists that may be unrecognised or categorised as “non-Western” in the art world.

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Mahlangu signing her work

In a world increasingly defined by aspirational consumption, the BMW has powerful purchase in the socialised and globalised imaginary. To own a BMW is an indication of power, wealth and status which represents physical, social and economic freedom available only to a minority. With speeds of up to 225 km/h, the BMW Art Car propels past the standard BMW. Thus the BMW “art project” exemplifies the privilege of car owning. The 12th of the series is unlike anything BMW have encountered nor exhibited before. Dubbed the first “African Art Car”, Mahlangu was employed to paint the car according to traditional Ndebele painting. The bold, geometrical and colourful patterns of the BMW Art Car originate from the Ndebele people in the 19th century, who encountered a defeat against the Boer-settlers. Forced into a life oppression, the Ndebele people began using expressive symbols to communicate on the walls of their home; the designs became an expression of cultural resistance and identity. Once imprinted onto the BMW, the art of this traditional culture is blended with capitalist exploitation, in a way that both obscures and celebrates South Africa’s colonial past. When the Ndebele paintings are appropriated by an affluent company like BMW, the art itself becomes a commercial advertisement, and its original harrowing meaning is belittled. This is not dissimilar to how Coca Cola conveys an image of global unity which actually serves as a marketing ploy for consumer countries.

I travelled specifically to the British Museum, London, to see the Ndebele BMW Art Car in person; this accentuates how effective BMW have been in their artistic subterfuge. The car is currently being exhibited under the curated collection “South Africa: the art of a nation” in the capital city. Whilst Ndebele art originally employed the exterior walls of houses as an artistic resource, allowing inhabitants and Ndebele passersby to contribute to its meaning, the Ndebele BMW is an extravagant art project to be overseen by a privileged few – currently by those who live near or can afford to travel to London. For significance to be drawn from Ndebele art, it should not be on a BMW, nor be placed in an exhibition, a private collection, or in a gallery. The displacement of the Ndebele house paintings onto the exhibited BMW, raises problems for justifications of the museum that appeal to the purported uniqueness and power of the work it contains. Ndebele house paintings was traditionally determined by its cheapness to create and freeness to experience. By contrast, museums contain art that is extremely expensive (to make and own), costly to experience, and to be overseen and critiqued by an elite. The disconnection of the Ndebele pattern from cultural house painting and the Ndebele people, onto the branded BMW, and into the gallery, impedes on its original meaning.

The 12th Art Car’s place in the British Museum relates to Benedict Anderson’s theory that the museum shapes the way the British colonial state “imagines its dominion” and legitimises its ancestry, as demonstrated by the artefacts Britain owns and museumifies. The national collections essentializes a multitude of cultures’ history, including Britain’s own Imperial past which implicated South Africa.