Thursday, 30 May 2013

My cake decorating skills have never progressed beyond a dab of glacé icing and a cherry but I'd love a Charleston birthday cake. And I can't decide whether I'm impressed or shocked by cheats' ready-printed icing.
 My oven bakes everything on a tilt so I'm not sure that I'd achieve the effect, anyway.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Elizabeth I when a Princess

I was dithering about how to spend my free afternoon, unable to drum up sufficient enthusiasm for The Great Gatsby to get myself out of the house, when I came up with a plan B that should have been plan A in the first place. Because this exhibition In Fine Style, The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion at the Queen's Gallery is sumptuously, stunningly, absolutely fabulous. Or as Brian Sewell put it: 'Do not dismiss this as a treat for members of the Women's Institute. It is an exhibition of high seriousness.' (What a longstanding grudge he has against the WI. Perhaps they sold him mouldy jam?)
Anyway, forget Brian Sewell ... What I say is that this is possibly the best fashion exhibition that you will ever see in your life. 

It isn't simply the sumptuous silks and jewels, and cloth of silver tissued with gold (see Princess Elizabeth's sleeves and skirt above). It isn't seeing Holbein's drawing of Queen Anne Boleyn in her nightcap, looking quite frumpy and double-chinned and surely not sexy enough to cause a King to fall out with the Pope. (Much as I loved seeing this so soon after reading Bring Up the Bodies.)

Henrietta Maria 
What astonished me was all the fabulous detail about hooks and eyelets and ribbons and how to get into these clothes and do them up and how they would enforce the graceful deportment which was part of royal status. It wouldn't have been just whalebone and stiffened canvas in your stays but layers of pasteboard, dampened and shaped to form a shell around your body as it dried. And can you just imagine the skill of the laundress, starching and pressing and crimping those lace collars ... when three Venetian lace cravats for Charles II cost the equivalent of £16,000. A man's cloak might cost as much as a house, so Walter Raleigh was gallant indeed to throw his down in a puddle. 
Just look at Henrietta Maria's frothy pinked sleeves ... can't you just hear the swish of silk as she moves. 
 It was fascinating to see surviving examples of clothing, Queen Henrietta's embroidered slippers, exquisite lace collars, Charles I's doublet .. and when you turn around, he is wearing that very same doublet in a portrait. There was so much to absorb ( and I'd started out rather late, blast The Great Gatsby) that I'm definitely going back for a second visit. I was the last one out of the gallery and if I'd dawdled any longer, the Queen would have to shout down the stairs and invite me to tea. But for those who can't get to the exhibition, which is on until October, the zoom feature on the website is excellent.
Anne of Denmark

Monday, 27 May 2013

Beth Gutcheon isn't as well-known here as in the US, so I was delighted a few weeks ago to come across her latest novel when my favourite Charing Cross Road bookshop was having an everything goes for £1 basement sale.
Gossip reminded me of Mary McCarthy's The Group and Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything and it's very skilfully done, even if they do it better. Loviah, Dinah and Avis met at a girls' boarding school in 1960. Loviah, the narrator, is the scholarship girl, the outsider; she hones her powers of discretion when dealing with society women who are the clientele of her designer dress shop. Dinah becomes a gossip columnist. Avis is more old school monied New York.
Gutcheon's previous novel Still Missing (one of my favourite Persephone titles) had me on the edge of my seat ... so I kept waiting for something to happen. It does, in the end, but this is a slow, slow build-up and when we got there, I found that I didn't really believe in the ending. But, as in Still Missing, Gutcheon is brilliant at describing the ripples of connection running through a community or through well-heeled society. She is also brilliant at describing clothes, down to the last button or the sit of a collar. Gossip has been a good bank holiday read, I galloped through most of it in an afternoon ... but that's as far it goes.

My coat pockets are always full of scribbled paper confetti, memos of book titles and recipe ingredients and cake shops that I really must visit and prompts to remind me when exhibitions are closing ... there is a sort of system because the left-hand pocket means it's important. Somewhere in the silted depths was a note that I'd scribbled a few weeks ago when I visited the British Library's A-Z of crime fiction and was intrigued when they described this book as the best fictional response to Hurricane Katrina. I'm not a huge fan of hard-core crime writing; I find the language of American street-cops almost impenetrable and this novel has a messy plot that was hard to keep track of. But none of that matters ... because James Lee Burke's haunting, angry description of the aftermath of Katrina is unforgettable, the filthy water, the bloated bodies, the helpless desperation of the poor. It felt all the more shocking to be reading it as a tornado devastated Oklahoma.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Remember the outrage years ago over that V&A ad campaign for the ace caff with quite a nice museum attached? 

The V&A caff, unfortunately, although it looks splendid (at least when there's nobody there) has never been ace and frankly is best avoided unless you are desperate for a sit-down.

But I always think of those ads when I visit the Garden Museum which really does have an ace caff. And a pretty garden where you can have tea. But where the exhibitions are all too often feeble. Yet again, the current exhibition sounds a whole lot better on paper than it is when you get there. Just think of the entrance fee as a levy on eating cake.

Toby jugs, carousel horses, embroidery ...
You will never guess where. Never in a million years would I have thought to see an exhibition of British Folk Art at the Tate. (Don't all rush. Not until next year.)
Now I can't stop thinking about Sir Nicholas Serota's toes curling in disdain ...
I'd love to see his face when it opens.
The thought made me giggle but I do rather sympathise. Those Toby jugs are getting ideas above their station.
What next? Jack Vettriano?

Friday, 24 May 2013

When you see the blown-up projection of her face at the back of the stage, you can see that Sylvie Guillem is 48. Though I doubt somehow that she groans as she gets up from the sofa. If I'm lucky, maybe I'll see her dance once or twice more, but she plans to retire when she is 50.
She is as scintillating and charismatic as ever but I'd swap a whole evening of this kind of thing to see her for 10 minutes back at Covent Garden. Preferably without this bloody awful music.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Step-On Can with Leg

Other early works feature deadpan renditions of visual aids .... suggesting the portrayal of women as an extension of the household appliance in America's consumer culture. (Exhibition leaflet.)

Drowning Girl
When I arrived at Tate Modern yesterday, I was feeling tired, caffeine-depleted and I'd already spent the morning dozing through a film that I was quite keen to see.

In fact, if you were portraying me as a household appliance, I'd be the vacuum cleaner that has lost its Vrooom, not a pert leg flipping up a trash can.

But Whaam! ... you can't deny the energy in a room full of Lichtensteins. I love their ambivalence and the way they seem to celebrate the vitality of popular culture, whilst commenting wryly on what Lichtenstein described as 'a sort of anti-sensibility that pervades society.'

So I woke up (I self-medicated en route with puff pastry, raspberries and Chantilly cream at Maison Bertaux) and enjoyed Roy's riffs on Matisse, Picasso and Monet.
Still Life with Goldfish

And was surprised by his delicate Chinese landscapes.

Landscape with Philosopher

Friday, 17 May 2013

It took me a couple of false starts to get into Bring Up the Bodies; not that I wasn't enjoying it, but life and other reading got in the way, something that simply wouldn't have been allowed to happen when I  polished off Wolf Hall in three almost sleepless days and nights, too engrossed to put it down.
But once I got into Bring Up the Bodies, past the first 100 pages ...  oh, I was back and utterly gripped as the tension built up and Anne Boleyn tumbled so swiftly from grace. I am left in awe once again at Hilary Mantel's skill, not a word wasted ... and how she keeps the reader hanging in suspense when, after all, we all of us know how the story will end.
And what an ending ... I am shivering in my shoes for Thomas Cromwell.
Of course, I'm completely smitten by him, as I suspect Hilary is, too.
How can she bear to write what comes next ...?

Saturday, 4 May 2013

I've never been keen on Kaffe Fassett. All those lurid jumpers - did anybody ever wear them? You'd look like a knitted dumpling - and those ghastly vegetable tapestries that were advertised in every colour mag in the 1980s.
But as I'd walked as far as Borough Market the other day, I thought I might as well walk a bit further and take a look at this Fashion Museum exhibition, and I must admit it was a blast of colour. (I liked Sue Timney's exhibition design much more than anything that was on display.)
No, I wasn't converted. The needlepoint leek is an artform that I am clearly never going to love. I love the colours of the quilts but there's something so sterile about them; they're just expensive fabric snipped up and stitched back together again; they don't have the organic feel of quilts that have been pieced together over time.
Kaffe Fassett was sitting quietly in a corner waiting for the onslaught of ladies who were queueing outside the door to get in for his talk. Poor man ...
It was like seeing Alan Titchmarsh being mugged by the HRT mob at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Friday, 3 May 2013

I always wish that there could be a long interval and that I could sit through it all again to catch any nuances I missed the first time. If only.
I must have booked the last seat in the house last night when I realised that Melissa Hamilton was dancing Mary Vetsera this afternoon. (And wasn't I lucky, because it was just where I like to sit.)
There's no doubting that Mayerling is a sordid story of decadence and in-breeding, a degenerate, syphilitic prince and a foolish, obsessive young girl ... and as for inappropriate relationships, just see Rudolf's pas-de-deux with his mother. (I loved all those Worth gowns hanging in the Empress's bedroom.)
Elisabeth of Austria wearing Charles Frederick Worth (Painting by Winterhalter)
I've seen Melissa Hamilton dance before but never in a role that displayed her marvellous fluidity so well. And to think that she didn't start dancing seriously until she was 16.
I do wish there was a way of rebooting one's memory to drag up every last detail of performances one has seen in the past. I love the way the Royal Opera House records the numbers of previous performances on the cast list. Today was the 124th performance of Mayerling. From my hoard of old programmes, going back years, I discover that the last one I saw was 95th. (Which doesn't sound so very long ago, but was actually back in 2004.)
I've just been toying with the idea of booking to see Alina Cojocaru again while it's all fresh in mind ...
Except that the performance I'd really like to see is Ed Watson's.
A State Ball in Vienna , Wilhelm Gause 

On a less highbrow note - as I always enjoy ROH intervals (a stroll on the rooftop in the sunshine, the costume displays and, this afternoon, a mini-exhibition about Nadia Nerina) ...
Is rhubarb this summer's new cocktail?
I stuck to rhubarb lemonade this afternoon for reasons of economy/dangers of sleepiness.
But I took some tips from the barman and might try it at home with gin or prosecco.
Cylinder II, Leo Villareal

I spent an hour this afternoon enthralled at the Hayward Gallery's Light Show, which was like a magical playground. (Although I still don't think it will prove as memorable as the beautiful Dan Flavin exhibition at the Serpentine some years ago.)
It ends spectacularly in Ólafur Elíasson's timeless garden of 27 fountains, with droplets of water playing and jumping like liquid diamonds. It is impossible to describe, so disorientating that you feel you might pass out - and utterly beautiful.