Sunday, 31 March 2013

Millions Like Her, Birmingham 1951

There's no mistaking Bert Hardy, although this one looks too stagey to be true - actually, the girl at the window does look awfully like Patricia Roc in this old film about the war effort. I prefer the shot below of wartime goodbyes at Paddington station. I was thinking that Hardy's centenary exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery would make a good outing for an icy cold Bank Holiday - but noticed just in time that it doesn't open until later in the week. 

Friday, 29 March 2013

If you escaped from the summer heat of Pompeii into the cool, shady, green garden room of the House of the Golden Bracelet, you would find yourself looking out over a terrace with pools and a fountain and stunning views over the sea.
I stood there alone for a few minutes and looked at the birds and the tangle of flowers, a wilderness of viburnum and oleander, arbutus, ivy, lilies, poppies and marigolds. I particularly liked the nightingale perching on a rosebush that has been tied to a bamboo stake.
I imagined the plip-plop of the fountain that wouldn't have jetted into the air because the water pressure from the Emperor Augustus's aqueduct wasn't strong enough.
The Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum is stunning. As you leave, you pass plaster casts of of the family who lived in that beautiful villa - a man, a woman with a small child struggling in her lap, an older child maybe five years old - their bodies contorted from the terrible heat. They were found crouching under a staircase further along the terrace.

You can still see traces of pink rouge in a tiny cosmetics jar and children's drawings on a living-room wall. You wonder about the young girl who fled to the beach, and who had given her the charm bracelet that was her favourite possession in all the world?
You eavesdrop on the bustle of their lives ... hear the jangle of a windchime in a shop doorway, taste the fishy condiments, read the graffiti of lovelorn boys.
And think how frightening it must have been at the end.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Only a couple of hours left to catch it, but this short film following landscape artist Norman Ackroyd through one wintry day in his Bermondsey studio is sheer delight. Recommended for lovers of porridge, Scottish islands and maps.

Monday, 25 March 2013

I know I've written before about Compton Verney which is one of the loveliest small art galleries I know. Of course, I was hoping my visit there on Friday might have been a primrose-y jaunt out of London ...

Do you think we might get primroses before June?

One of my favourite things at Compton Verney is the Marx-Lambert collection of very desirable objects that I'd like to take home.

Enid Crystal Dorothy Marx ... isn't that a wonderful name? ... was a contemporary of Eric Ravilious and Eric Bawden at the Royal College of Art.  She designed textiles, wallpaper, book jackets, the Coronation stamps ...

Stamp designing is a sort of puzzle. Into this tiny national visiting card has to be fitted the Sovereign's head, the value and the given subject, commemorative or otherwise. Colour is important, for by it both the counter clerk and the public have to recognise the value.

But the project she enjoyed most was the moquette she designed for the seats on London Underground.

The project was great fun because there was a very strict brief. The moquette seating needed to look fresh at all times, even after bricklayers had sat on it. 

She disliked the harsh colours of a mass-produced age and preferred the old, fast vegetable and mineral colours. Indigo, Quercitron, Madder red and Walnut, iron black and Buff. I tell you this, not because it is useful, but because Quercitron is a lovely word and I may never get the chance to use it again.

She found inspiration for her paintings in the collection of delightfully quirky objects that she made with her lifelong friend, the social historian Margaret Lambert. Mugs and jugs, corn dollies and scrapbooks ...
See that pretty mug filled with hellebores, above ... you can see it alongside the painting.
Objects are still coming to light. Only recently the lucky person who inherited their house in Hampstead unearthed their collection of buttons.

Enid Marx visited Compton Verney shortly before she died in 1998 and loved it so much that bequeathed her collection.
Since my visit to Compton Verney, I have been living in a dream world where I feel like Bottom in love with Titania (the house). Shakespeare must have based A Midsummer Night's Dream from a walk in the grounds.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Domestic Scene, Mary Gallagher
(East Dunbartonshire Council)
Sideboard, tea caddy, nasturtiums, Staffordshire dog, alarm clock, slippers, baby's dummy, Norah Batty stockings ...
This is the kind of painting that's most fun to tag, even if it's not a masterpiece. Although I also get great satisfaction from trying to put a date to works where that's unknown.
To be honest, I went cold turkey after my initial flirtation with tagging the nation's art collections.
It's just too big a distraction. (I really am supposed to be working when I'm sitting at my desk.)
But it kind of crept up on me again. And when I was invited to a tagger afternoon at the National Portrait Gallery, I was slightly horrified to discover that I am one of the nation's top taggers. (Nation's top procrastinators might be more like it.)
This is very, very addictive ...
And we all cheerfully admitted that we were obsessive compulsive insomniac pedants with too much time on our hands. Only 15% of taggers clock up more than 50 paintings before they give up.
The organisers seemed surprised and rather shocked that peak tagging time isn't at weekends but on Mondays and Tuesdays.
But as we seasoned time-wasters well know, those are the quietest days when you're at work. And you can always do just one more ...
However, your country's art collections need you. This is the only country in the world to have digitalised every single oil painting in public collections from national art galleries to village primary schools and even fire stations. More than 180,000 paintings remain to be catalogued; each one has to be tagged by 15 people to get a consensus and there are only 9,000 taggers, including all the drop-outs.
Of course, if you've really got time on your hands you could always try classifying galaxies.
I'm quite relieved that it doesn't appeal to me at all.
Life's just too short.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Mayhem Parva was the term coined by mystery writer Colin Watson in his sociological analysis of those English villages where murder is rife - like St Mary Mead.
I spent a happy half hour yesterday afternoon pottering through Murder in the Library: An A-Z of Crime Fiction, a small but very engaging exhibition at the British Library. (It's very small so although it's well worth a detour if you're passing through King's Cross/St Pancras, I wouldn't say it's worth a special trip into London.)
Naturally, A is for Agatha ... whose Miss Marple first appeared in 1927, wearing black brocade, a Mechlin lace jabot and black lace mittens. No hint of baggy tweeds.
Who knew that the footballer Pelé wrote a murder mystery (with help) or that Gypsy Rose Lee wrote the lurid Striptease Murders ... 'strangled with their own G-strings'? Won't be rushing to read them.
The birth of Nordic Noir dates back to 1965 and Swedish writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. (I can see I'm going to get hooked on the new BBC series Arne Dahl.)
There were detectives I'd never heard of, like Anna Katherine Green's nosy spinster Miss Amelia Butterworth, a 19th century prototype for Miss Marple with her sidekick the debutante sleuth Violet Strange.
But the book that  I'd never come across before - and I most want to read - is The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke which has been described as the best fictional response to Hurricane Katrina. (Hurrah. It's in my local library.)
Couldn't leave the British Library, though, without an antidote to all that mayhem and violence ... and a pilgrimage to Jane Austen's writing desk and her tiny pair of spectacles. (But don't you think that Meryton would have been a splendid place for a murder?)

Sunday, 17 March 2013

 I've never read anything by Neil Gaiman ... and I'm the last person you'll catch reading any kind of fantasy, myth or magic. But I caught the radio adaptation of Neverwhere tonight - set in a parallel subterranean London - and I can see I'm going to be hooked for the next few days. Brilliant cast, including James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch as the Angel Islington who has yet to appear.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

I don't remember these stamps from a few years ago, which probably only goes to show how little real mail I receive - because how could I forget Paula Rego's Jane Eyre pictures?
I tracked them down in a Google search this afternoon after spending an hour with tea and a hot cross bun and a new ITV documentary The Brilliant Bronte Sisters (on later this month). Rego - whose Jane is downright ugly, not the prettyish-scrubbed-faced heroine of costume dramas - has no time for Mr Rochester who she thinks is a pompous twit.
The programme won't tell you anything you didn't know already about the famous sisters - there can't be anything left to say - but Sheila Hancock is an inspired choice as presenter. (Can she really be 80?) Without intruding details of her own life, it's clear that her response to the novels is heartfelt ... all that passion and loneliness and grief and, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, alcoholism and the effect it has on a family. Love her voice, too, when she's reading.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Men of the Docks, 1912
As I was walking around the George Bellows exhibition at the Royal Academy yesterday, I kept hearing the soundtrack of Once Upon a Time in America playing through my mind, perhaps a decade or so out, but still capturing that raw energy of New York in the early years of the 20th century.
Bellows painted longshore men on the Brooklyn waterfront, waiting to unload a vast ocean liner with the skyscrapers of Manhattan in the background. He painted the street life of the Lower East Side, tin can fights between gangs, skinny boys bathing in the muddy East River,
and the vast excavation pit where workers toiled to build Penn Station. He painted the baying audience at seedy boxing clubs in the parts of the city where the tired, the poor and the huddled masses now swarmed. This is the underbelly of Edith Wharton's New York.

Stag at Sharkey's, 1909
North River, 1908
But Bellow also painted the powerful landscape that dwarfed the forces of industrialisation.And well-dressed middle-class families skating in Central Park on an icy-blue day, a painting that made me think of Willa Cather's Lucy Gayheart and her hopes and disappointments in another city.

Love of Winter, 1914
Mr and Mrs Phillip Wase, 1924

Easter Snow, 1915
There was something very poignant about Bellows' portraits of his own family, his elderly aunt with her lined face and thinning old-lady's hair, and his neighbours Mr and Mrs Phillip Wase - she a cleaning woman, he a gardener - her hands gnarled, her wedding ring so tightly embedded in her finger that she couldn't take it off and with a studio photograph of herself as a lovely young woman on the wall behind her.

Finally, simply because it seems horribly appropriate, I couldn't resist this painting of ladies in their new spring outfits defying the snowy Easter weather of 1915.

Bellows is barely known in the UK, so I don't suppose this exhibition will be a crowd-puller but I think it's a knock-out.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Many thanks to the anonymous reader who got in touch to tell me about the house in Abbots Langley (the inspiration for The Village) where Marghanita Laski lived during the war.
Its garden is open in May for one day only, which sounds like a lovely afternoon out although probably difficult to get there without a car.

Friday, 8 March 2013

 Art, it would seem, is born like a foal that can walk straight away. (John Berger)

This is the oldest known portrait of a woman, carved from ivory at least 27,000 years ago. She has a dimpled chin, although you can't see it properly here, and a drooping, palsied eyelid.
The Ice Age exhibition at the British Museum is quite small but the experience is intense.
This was the moment when the human brain developed to create art of great delicacy.
But it also feels like a memento mori. This was a living woman.
There were sculptures of pregnant women, one clasping a barely swelling belly in the early months of pregnancy - and possibly sculptures like this were made by women, for women.
It would have taken at least 36 hours to make a miniature ivory horse that is even older, and you wonder about the person who held it in their hands 36,000 years ago.
Some of the figures would have been suspended in space so their shadows danced on the walls of a firelit cave. I came away feeling that  life is very short, not even a blink in history.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Young Woman with Flowers, Roger Worms, 1943

This vast and hugely informative Tumblr archive Still Life Quick Heart is sheer delight for anyone who loves flower paintings, (just click on each painting to find out more).  But as Simon posted recently about not knowing where to start looking for the domestic paintings to which he feels drawn, I picked out this 1940s interior for him ... sorry Simon, I know nothing about the artist except that he was French.

Silver and Spode, Allan Douglass Mainds, 1942

And this one, from Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, with its suggestion of maintaining high standards on the home front .. even if the sultanas in the fruit cake were sparser than usual.
Do have a browse here. But be warned, one painting leads to another and before you know it an hour has passed. 

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The orchids at Kew this morning were an exotic explosion of colour. There was Gingersnap and Goldfish. Fata Morgana and Cascade Fortune Teller. Misty Mountain and Stairs to Heaven. One very beautiful one was simply called Yellow with Pink Stripes;  perhaps the person who first grew it was simply lost for words.

But I also saw the first bee of the year inside a crocus. And the first butterfly.
And carpets of cyclamen and lots of snowdrops and daffodils.

Which put such a spring in my step that I skipped to the Maids of Honour teashop.
And bought the first enormous cream cake for my tea.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Say, ooohhh ...

This afternoon I grasped my last chance to see the Valentino exhibition at Somerset House. I'm not sure how it compares with the Manet crowds but 1800 ladies a day have been sighing over every ravishing detail on 138 gowns. There was Jackie O's wedding dress and Julia Roberts' gown for her Erin Brokovich Oscar.

Of course, there were some low points. Like pretty much all of the 1980s, anything you could imagine Joan Collins in and the camouflage ballgown inspired by Andy Warhol, made of silk but it looked like brushed nylon.

It was a very convivial crowd. When ladies of a certain age get entranced by couture, we do get quite chatty and I got talking with one who had briefly worked in a couture house after she left school.

I love the vocabulary of couture.

I admire the elegance of pieghe voltate, the delicacy of point d'esprit.

I would love to swish in organza pagine which I think would be very moi but not in pale pink. (One little girl said they looked like slices of ham.)

But if I were spending my own money like Mrs 'Arris, I'm afraid it would have to be rose di volant. 

And I really loved the section at the end that showed how to create the special effects. Even though I can barely sew on a button.