Sunday, 12 April 2015


Monica Dickens ... I've only to hear the name and the years roll away and I'm curled up in an armchair with a bag of sweets and my mum's library book. She'd pull them out of her shopping bag, Catherine Cookson's Mary Ann books, Daphne du Maurier, Howard Spring, AJ Cronin - and Monica Dickens,    who impressed both of us because of her famous literary ancestor.

 I don't recall reading The Angel in the Corner - but when Darlene posted about it recently, she sent me scurrying to the library to put in a request. I checked it out yesterday, two minutes before closing - started it in bed last night - pulled it out from under the pillow first thing this morning and the day has vanished, I've done nothing except read to The End.

 I don't know why they're so enjoyable. It's pure Woman's Own fiction. The nice middle-class girl marries a good-looking brute who drags her down to life in a slum - but he can't vanquish her independent spirit. (The Penguin cover is too insipid and droopy; I think this lurid one sums it up better.)
It's completely unbelievable soap opera, and Monica Dickens has a penchant for clunky great coincidences that maybe she imbibed from her great-grandfather. But she's such a story teller, so good on descriptions of clothes and food and London and domestic detail and grubby newspaper offices ... so thanks, Darlene, I'm blaming you for my lost weekend!

Saturday, 11 April 2015

The Home Quartette: Mrs Vernon Lushington and Her Children, Arthur Hughes, 1883

It is 1883 and you find yourself living next door to delightful Mrs Vernon Lushington and her charming, talented daughters ... now admit it, don't you just hate them? Mamma is a Victorian Tiger Mother, relentless at promoting the young ladies' talents - and it's so much more economical than shopping at Liberty when you can run up a matching trio of green velvet Aesthetic frocks out of the drawing-room curtains. No visitor escapes without being performed at, not to mention a parting lecture from Mamma on the perils of corsets. What a shame that the young gentlemen who sign her anti-tight-lacing petitions have such clammy hands.
(Now I've just Googled them out of curiosity. The real Mrs Lushington died suddenly the year after this portrait was painted and Kitty, the eldest daughter, later became the inspiration for Virginia Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway.)
Miss Anna Alma-Tadema, 1883, by her father
Fifteen is an awkward age and that shell necklace looks as if it was made in the schoolroom after the grown-ups had oysters for dinner.

Jane 'Jeanie' Elizabeth Nassau Senior, GF Watts, 1857-58, 
Mrs Nassau Senior, the model for Dorothea Brooke, was the first female civil servant - but I don't suppose she wore her purple dressing gown to the office.

Alice in Wonderland, George Dunlop Leslie, 1879

I've always had a soft spot for this painting and it was a nice surprise to come across it unexpectedly - and, anyway, I've always hankered after that sofa.

The Aesthetic Dress exhibition at the Watts Gallery is tiny but I really enjoyed it. It doesn't seem to matter that Watts is a painter I can't bring myself to love because the gallery itself is such a delight, especially at this time of year with the surrounding woods full of celandines, anemones and violets. For once we'd come on the right day for a tour of Limnerslease, the artist's Arts and Crafts house, with a very knowledgeable guide whose enthusiasm brought the place alive.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015


There were daffodils and crocuses, primroses, cowslips, the first tulips and rhododendrons, an amazing purple magnolia with blooms the size of an Ascot hat ...

There was birdsong (over the inescapable traffic noise) and a few early butterflies ...

There was the knock-out scent as you walked into the glasshouse - from freesias, lilies, oranges, lemons and limes, sweetpeas, freesia, heliotropes and stocks, completely bonkers, mingling in a heavenly blast of heady perfumes.

And I love the idea of Amaryllis Trials. Hippeastrum Benfica, you are charged with getting too big for your boots and toppling off the shelf. How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?
As for Hippeastrum papilio - that's right, no supermarket amaryllis, but the expensive miscreant from Kew - what alibi do you have for your refusal to flower this year?
This one was a stunner and so was this. 

I always think this house has been transported from Bekonscot village or an Enid Blyton storybook. (It's actually the laboratory.)

I wasn't sure about going to Wisley on a bank holiday - but it was perfick.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Tea at Furlongs, 1939
On a sunny spring afternoon, what could be nicer than a pot of coffee and a jam-and-cream scone in the lovely garden at Dulwich Picture Gallery, admiring daffodils and a gorgeous magnolia ...

Before discovering that the Ravilious exhibition you were so looking forward to is pure pleasure and delight, everything you were hoping for and more. There are old favourites, seen in the flesh ...
The Waterwheel, 1938
The Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes, 1935
If you've only seen the birthday card, you haven't experienced the strange magnetic pull of the closed greenhouse door.

Train Landscape, 1940
I've only seen the famous Train Landscape once before, when I was so surprised to discover that it's a collage, I never noticed that it's slightly on a tilt - conveying the motion of the train. Just look at the rubbed nap of the velvet upholstery and the worn leather window-strap ... again and again, I was amazed by textures lost in reproduction.
Flowers on a Cottage Table
But there were many, many watercolours that were completely new to me, either because they are held by museums that rarely show them or they're in private collections. (Oh yes, I was overcome by art-envy! But do you grab and run/escape on a bicycle/call a cab ... I've always been fascinated by Dulwich's history of art crime - although if anyone from Scotland Yard/Interpol should chance to read this: It Wozzn't Me.
A Farmhouse Bedroom, 1930s
A Farmhouse Bedroom is in the V&A ... wouldn't you shiver at the thought of having to sleep there? It could be the setting for an unnerving psychological thriller about an unhappy marriage - or a creepy lodging house. I wondered what Hitchcock would make of it?
RNAS Sick Bay, Dundee, 1941
On the other hand, you could never be bored convalescing in this bed.

Vicarage in Winter, 1935
And I haven't even started on dawn light - and steely winter skies - and footprints in snow. So if you're reading this, Sue, and wondering if it's worth a trip to London - the answer is yes, you definitely should!

Monday, 30 March 2015


I searched ... for the little black dresses, with bustles, the waisted girdles, the gold jewellery, the hats with back drapery that everybody was buying in New York. The London shops are only showing uniforms of every kind and  'siren wear' - for a hasty descent into the air raid shelter. (Journalist, 1939)

All those plucky housewives making do and mending, turning fishtail evening gowns into dinner dresses and granny's flannel drawers into a snazzy siren suit ...

What I want to know is what happened to women like me when fashion was rationed? It took me 20 minutes yesterday to thread a needle to mend a pair of trousers. If I'd ever been faced with making a bra  from a RAF silk escape map - Trieste on one cup, Milan on the other - well, the bra-less look would have arrived 30 years early. And now I think of it, Trieste/Milan doesn't bode well if you're more than a B-cup, does it? More buxom ladies - those of us whose cups runneth over and beyond the Alps  - would need a silken world atlas. As for matching knickers ...

One of the best fashion exhibitions I've ever seen was the wonderful New Look exhibition at the Imperial War museum, getting on for 20 years ago. Their new exhibition Fashion on the Ration doesn't even come close. It made a pleasant Sunday afternoon outing but I did feel that I'd seen it all before, been there, read the diaries, bought the Jacqmar scarf ...



As I've thrown out bagfuls of old clothes in the past few weeks, I wondered what a 1940s Mrs Sew-and-Sew would have made from the garments I've let go. One woman, writing in 1943, described how she spotted a top hat on a corporation salvage truck and wondered had it ever been to Ascot? 'Or maybe it had just an ordinary sort of life, going to the City each day and returning at night to a home set in a quiet garden and a maid in a frilly cap and apron to hang it on a mahogany hat stand. Now in the year 1943 it was going to end its life in a noble way or ignoble perhaps...'

A Welsh housewife names Gladys complained: 'I'm afraid our slogan "Make do and mend" is almost worn out itself by now, most of our garments won't "make do" or "mend" any more.'

Fashion on the Ration felt a bit ... rationed. As if there weren't quite enough exhibits to go round. (There weren't very many visitors, either.) But it all ties in rather well with the new ITV series Home Fires, based on Julie Summers' book Jambusters about the WI in its finest hour. (Why on earth did they change that wonderful title!) Julie Summers also wrote the accompanying book to Fashion on the Ration. I've only seen the first episode of the TV series but it looks promising. Anyone for dried egg Victoria sandwich, carrot jam and mock cream?

Thursday, 26 March 2015


Thanks to Non at The Dahlia Papers for the nudge that sent me to Chiswick House on a glorious afternoon to catch the Camellia Show. Camellias make me think of ballgowns, swirling pink chiffon and debutante white; the pink and white stripe ones like a crisp, expensive, ballerina-length summer dress, something Audrey Hepburn might wear on a Riviera holiday. But Non got it exactly right. They're flamenco dresses.
Fascinating to learn that these are some of the oldest camellias in the country; some were brought home by East Indiamen sea captains as gifts for the shipowners and their wives. In 1825, a camellia sold for 5gns which was half a year's wages for a housemaid.
I didn't buy a camellia. If plants had social workers, mine would be taken into care.
But now I think of it, it cost me 5gns for coffee and a slab of Simnel cake sitting outside in the sunshine. (Chiswick House does exceedingly good cake.)

Saturday, 21 March 2015



I watched the eclipse yesterday from the train on my way up to York, wondering if it was okay to gaze at the sun through grubby windows; possibly not, as I had yellow spots before my eyes for quite a few minutes. The world went dark ... well, that's what happened in 1999, when the birds stopped singing, too, but this time, as it turned out, we'd only gone into a tunnel. The other passengers were very blasé and barely gave it a glance.

There's something very special about arriving at York into what was once the biggest station in the world (although the lovely ladies' waiting room with the polished mahogany table is long gone). No matter how long I've been away from York, it feels like coming home, especially in spring when the city walls are a mass of daffodils. (Misjudged that, though; I've become such a southerner that I hadn't allowed for how much later things are in the north. The daffodils were barely opening. And there doesn't seem to be anything like as many as there used to be - gulp - 40 years ago.)

I spent a couple of hours in the Railway Museum, because I'd never been there. And then I just walked, because there is history around every corner. Down an alleyway, wriggle past the wheelybin ... and there's the ruins of a house, more than 800 years old. Look out from the window of a medieval townhouse and see a grey cat (a live one) curled up on the rooftiles. Sit in a windowtable at Betty's with a pot of tea and a fat rascal and spot a cat statue (originally to frighten the rats) over a door across the way. And don't miss the little red devil. It doesn't take much imagining to people these narrow streets with apprentices and cooks and canons and guildsmen ...

But I could so easily have missed what turned out to be the highlight of the day. I went into the Minster to visit my favourite window - lingered listening to the choir - but I didn't feel drawn to something that looked like an intergalactic cowpat. So thank you to the verger who told me to retrace my steps or I'd miss the chance of a lifetime for a close-up view of glass from the Great East Window. The detail is amazing - whether it's the surprised, gossipy faces of the angels as St John peeks through a trapdoor into heaven or the delicate plants on the clifftops as his little boat is tossed ashore on Patmos. It is humbling to think of those 15th century craftsmen who must have thought that their work would be hidden from view for all eternity. And when the restoration is complete and the glass goes back in (it's one of the largest windows in the world, it's the size of a tennis court) ... it could be generations, or even centuries, before anyone gets a close-up look again.