Wednesday 30 April 2014

You are invited to the wedding of Jane and James on November 9th, 1780, near Winchester ...

The bride, a wealthy farmer's daughter, wore cream sprigged silk and this rather fetching shepherdess straw bonnet - and wouldn't she be pleased to know that 230 years on, it would still look fresh and pretty.

This is the first gown in the V&A's irresistible exhibition of wedding dresses (which is on for ages, so no need to rush).

Do not marry a young man, you know not how he may turn out. (A mother's advice to her daughter, 1801.)

The showstopper was the Norman Hartnell gown worn by Margaret Sweeny (You're the top, you're Mussolini, you're Mrs Sweeny ...) at her first wedding in 1933 - at the Brompton Oratory, next door to the V&A - when she invited 1,000 guests and got 2,000 gatecrashers. Fun to see old newsreel footage with her nine sulky bridesmaids ... and the V&A didn't breathe a whisper about her future shenanigans. 

 But just look at that wonderful dress and its 3.6m train ...
 This is how it travelled when the exhibition went to Australia.

I loved this stylish wartime dress made from unrationed upholstery fabric in shimmering synthetic silk, embroidered with buttercups. 

I couldn't help wondering how all those marriages turned out. If Mary, who wore embroidered white muslin in 1807, lived happily ever after, if Henrietta's rose-embroidered garters were fun on her wedding night in 1848.

As ever, I lose interest in the modern section when it's all about celebrities I've barely heard of (although Kate Moss's dress, I must admit, was exquisite) and designer dresses that have never been worn by real brides.

There was the dog's dinner dress, although the V&A call it a flower bomb ... not so much a meringue as an Eton mess.

There was this famously tacky dress by Bruce Oldfield - loathed by the bridegroom  - which when you see it up close turns out to be rather nasty polyester.

But look out for the exquisite detail on Lady Oxmantown's dress, with its seams stitched with tiny seed pearls. I can't find a picture but I've never seen anything like it.

What is missing from the exhibition is common or garden wedding dresses from the 1950s up to the present. Not dresses that cost as much as a house, but dresses bought in department stores or high street bridal shops or made by local dressmakers or the bride's mum. That's real social history, not what celebs are wearing for marriages that last five minutes. The V&A used to have a brilliant section on their website where you could upload your own family wedding photos. There were hundreds, going right back to the 19th century - but I looked yesterday and it doesn't seem to be there any more. Or if it is, I can't find it. It was always rather buried away and you had to know it was there. What a shame if they've dismantled it. In fact, I'd have scrapped all of the upstairs part of this exhibition and given the space over to bouffant veils and 1960s broderie anglaise and 1970s Juliet caps ... I'm sure they are there, stashed away in boxes all around the country. 

Monday 28 April 2014

It wasn't planned, but it was a weekend of bluebells, books and baking.
On a damp spring afternoon, in ancient English woodland carpeted with bluebells ... you wouldn't know you were in London except for the rumble of trains and planes overhead.
Apparently 4.5% of London is woodland and 1.7% is ancient woodland, all we have left of the wildwood.
No matter how many years you've lived here, London always throws up surprises ... and I can't tell you how surprised I was yesterday to discover a real, old-fashioned bluebell wood, hazy with English bluebells, only a 10 minute bus ride from home, hidden behind a street of boring suburban semis. Yesterday was an open day but for £20 a year you can borrow a key to get in whenever you like.
There were bachelor's buttons, wild garlic, campion, yellow archangel, forget-me-nots and I expect lots more but I'm not very good on plant names.
It was a lovely spur of the moment outing that reminded me of filling jamjars full of wilting bluebells when I was a child ... #middleaged crimes.

Friday 25 April 2014

For sure, I'll want to go - and I know there were four hour queues in New York. But my heart sinks at the thought that there are people who will book tickets for an exhibition a whole year in advance. This was only announced last night, but already it seems there's high demand ...
But I think I'll stick to my usual policy of leaving it to the last minute.

Thursday 24 April 2014

I was completely bowled over yesterday by the loveliness of this exhibition of boro textiles at Somerset House. There was that gentle buzz you get in a gallery when people are discovering something new and very pleasing and are really glad they came ...
It's only on for a few more days (last day Saturday) but anyone who's into quilting or patchwork would love it. And it's free. I'm very keen on free!
I admit, I'd never heard of boro. They were created out of poverty and need in rural Japan from the 18th century until about the 1920s and few survive as they were objects of shame.
Mostly used as futon covers, they were made from layers of recycled cotton rags, reinforced with sashiko stitching. To me, they looked liked an aerial landscape ... fields of stripes and checks, and buff and shades of indigo. Some of the more intense indigos made me think of looking out of a plane on a night flight. Ironically, they now sell in the region of £3,000 - £20,000.

Wednesday 23 April 2014

My first attempt to see Van Gogh's Sunflowers was abandoned when I saw that queue wending out of the National Gallery and into Trafalgar Square ...
So this morning I made sure that I'd be there five minutes before the gallery opened.
And as I rounded the corner,  there was the queue ... down the steps, into Trafalgar Square.
But what do you know, they were all tourists and school parties, maybe it's like that every morning. And when the doors opened, they dispersed or stood in the entrance faffing about.
And so I moved like greased lightning ...
And queued for about two minutes to see The Sunflowers and stayed there for half an hour drinking them in.
I'm painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating his bouillabaisse, which won't surprise you when it's a question of painting large SUNFLOWERS ...
I've seen both paintings before, but they haven't been seen together in London since 1947. (Can you imagine the queues if they ever brought all six of the surviving Sunflowers together?)
The National Gallery's Sunflowers from 1888, painted for Gauguin's bedroom, is the top image. The Amsterdam copy below dates from January, 1889.
I pondered ... I think I prefer ours. (The glass was slightly more intrusive on the Dutch painting.)
And then I thought about the day a few years ago, when I spent an afternoon locked in a vault at the Van Gogh Museum ...
And held the letter to his brother - feasibly blood-stained, or maybe just spotted with age -  that was found in Vincent's pocket after he shot himself, just 18 months or so after completing his Sunflowers. It felt at the same time shockingly intrusive and such an intimate connection more than a century on.

I wonder if I'll ever get the chance to see the rarest Sunflowers of all, hidden away in a private collection? It did cross my mind on St George's Day that, queues or not, how lucky we are to have such wonderful free exhibitions.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

Okay, I admit, I have to be at a loose end to write about TV programmes.
And maybe that's why I'm such an unreliable critic.
Sorry. Remember my initial enthusiasm for Norwegian noir?
I couldn't make head nor tail of it by the end of the series.
And how could I possibly have thought that The Crimson Field was better than Call the Midwife?
What was I on? Does my Yorkshire Brew habit completely drown my critical faculties?
Like many of you, I suffer from incurable bouts of PAST (Post-Aristocratic Stress) manifesting as Sunday evening dependency on opiates sugar-coated in period costume. Women who suffer from PAST are often particularly susceptible to triggers from wartime.
Sadly The Crimson Field turned out to be Downton Goes to War, mildly enjoyable but emotionally uninvolving. Scriptwriting by numbers ...
Nurse with a shameful secret in her past. Check.
Let's have another nurse with a darker, more dangerous secret. Check.
Mean, kleptomaniac lesbian nurse? Two for the price of one. Check.
Nurses running away from something? That'll be all of them.
Equal opportunities statement. As all VADs must have secrets, even the cheerful youngest nurse has a teeny-tiny, not very interesting secret. Check. Bless her.
As for the shocking finale ... I won't give it away, but it's so obvious what's going to happen that they might have let off a howitzer blast to alert you.

However ...
After a four hour orgy last night when I watched Quirke from start to finish, for once I can confidently say that this series is seriously classy.
Adapted by Andrew Davies and Conor McPherson. From John Banville's series of crime thrillers (written as Benjamin Black). With a cast that includes smouldering Gabriel Byrne and Michael Gambon.
Set against the underbelly of de Valera's 1950s Dublin.
With lovely shots of Dollymount strand and Georgian fanlights.
There has been some carping about it in the Irish papers - but I thought it was excellent.

Saturday 19 April 2014

We were probably the only people in the audience who didn't know the story inside out. Believe it or not, I have never read anything by Jacqueline Wilson -  but all of us, aged from seven to I'm not saying,    but the oldest person was me, thoroughly enjoyed this lovely stage adaptation of Hetty Feather, based on the story of the Foundling Hospital. It's only on for a few more days locally, but it's about to go on tour. Orphans and circus skills, a brilliant elephant and some wonderful circus horses who made the grown-ups laugh even more than the boys.
There's an interview with Jacqueline Wilson here and a trailer here. 
They didn't have anything like this when I was seven!
Now, of course, we must have an outing to the Foundling Hospital.
Voted 'best show we've ever seen' by two critics who can be counted on to speak their mind very loudly on the way home.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

This isn't the kind of book I'd buy - certainly not at £25 - but I saw it in the library and was seduced by the lovely pictures.
But, heavens, I found Emma Bridgewater's writing so annoying.
I'm as big a sucker as anybody else for all that aspirational stuff about life in the country with chickens and a dresser of enviable china - even though I know that I'd run a mile if a chicken cocked its eye at me. But it's a seductive image and, like every woman I know, I've bought into it.
Now I think of it, every kitchen where I'm on tea-drinking terms has some of her mugs/bowls/butter dishes ...
It's a brand. You shop at Waitrose. You buy Emma Bridgewater.
I'd have been interested in knowing a bit more about how she built such a successful business.
But there's a cliquey-ness about this book. It's rambling and unstructured. It's like being at a party where everybody else is on first name terms - and you're the glassy-eyed with boredom person who doesn't know who they're talking about. And the author hasn't the good manners to make introductions.
It's a bit like reading the Daily Mail sidebar of shame, only with a posher cast. (Kim, Cheyenne, Dita ... no, I haven't got a clue either.)
And it's put me right off my butter dish with the blue stars.
Which I don't suppose was the intention.

Monday 14 April 2014

It's Mills and Boon meets Harry Potter.

It's Fifty Shades of Grey with vampires.

It's a silly book for silly women - and it's as long as Middlemarch.

Don't know what possessed me ...

Unless you're a vampire, life's too short.

Friday 11 April 2014

Oh, to be in England ...

I have picked the first vases of white lilac.

Suddenly I notice wisteria drooping on the walls of enviable houses, ie not mine.

The bluebells came out when I must have been looking the other way.

A friend gave me a bunch of red parrot tulips from her garden - which would be on my desk. Except that is a precarious position for flowers.

There were violets on her lawn.

The Surrey hedgerows yesterday were bright with celandine and wood anemones and masses of cow parsley.

The year seems to be going very fast.

Yesterday we visited the Watts Gallery, I've never been there before. Not an artist I much care for - although I enjoyed seeing Miss Virginia Julian Dalrymple's green velvet gown displayed by her portrait. The gallery, however, is superb.

Here is a link for Mystica, who asked to see lilac. The scent is the smell of spring, Mystica, especially after rain when you smell the wet leaves. Around here, the white lilac has been out for a few days but the mauve-purply lilac needs a week or two longer. I remember one fabulous year when I enjoyed two lilac seasons, as I spent a few days in Sweden when it comes out in June, much later than ours. Every village there was drenched in it and the scent wafted on every breeze. More prosaically, I pick mine from a mass of bushes overhanging the railway line. This year they haven't cut them back and there's plenty in reach. 

Wednesday 9 April 2014

I missed the last couple of productions at the Almeida, then regretted it when they transferred to the West End where seats are a sight more expensive than £9 in the stalls (supposedly restricted view but I've always been able to see perfectly well).
So this time I took a chance and booked for King Charles III - described as a future history play - without knowing anything about it.
I was in my seat before I looked at the cast list. Tim Pigott-Smith ...
He was simply brilliant as Charles, captured every nuance of well-meaning, dithering self-doubt and standing on ceremony.
The Queen is dead. Charles wants to be a King who makes his mark.
The first bill he has to sign is a privacy bill gagging the press.
Despite having no love for them, Charles doesn't want to put his signature to a bill about which he has grave reservations.
But will the politicians and the people accept a monarch who is more than a figurehead?
There is a tank outside Buckingham Palace ... but who/what is it there to protect?
Brilliantly-written, almost Shakespearean and highly-recommended. (Though I wasn't completely convinced by William's Kate as a manipulative Lady Macbeth.)
I did wonder what the real Charles would make of it.
But it's absolutely inconceivable that he could ever go!

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

In memoriam (Easter 1915)
By Edward Thomas who died at Arras, this day, April 9, 1917.

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Saturday mornings are not a constructive time of the week here. But last Saturday I got myself up and out to a morning piano recital ... listening to a very talented young pianist, playing this, this and this  ... and thought, what a lovely way to see in the weekend. (Not many people there.)
Then it was over the road to the farmers' market where I bought a bunch of rhubarb. (Still haven't got round to making that crumble.) 
And panettone ice-cream for a healthy lunch, as good as it sounds. (After serious consideration, I have to say that it's better than Scoop around the corner. And cheaper, too.)
Then on to the National Portrait Gallery to see this exhibition of Great War portraits, the paintings too glib but the photographs of heroic boys and their destroyed faces so terribly moving.


Almost no mention of women apart from Edith Cavell and Mata Hari. I did think that the NPG could have given this a bit more space; there were crowds of people, of all ages and walks of life and a real sense of recognition that this war was part of all of our family histories. When I got home I searched on the internet for my great-uncle's grave in a naval cemetery in Malta. He was a ship's cook - I didn't know that, I'm not sure my mother did - whose ship was torpedoed in 1917. The following year his younger sister, my grandmother, was awarded one of the first OBEs for saving another girl's life in a munitions factory. I'd sooner have seen a photo of my granny - and all the other ordinary women who played a part in the war - than Mata Hari.

Friday 4 April 2014

Ever since I realised that 50 years have passed since Play School appeared in black and white on BBC2 (which we didn't have in our house for several years to come) ...
This blasted tune has been ticking relentlessly through my head.
Open with care.

Thursday 3 April 2014

I love this little 1950s cocktail dress with its bouffant skirt, one of my favourites from the V&A's new Glamour of Italian Fashion exhibition - true glamour, don't you think? (Accessorise with a Martini and an olive.)
It's very much an exhibition of two halves. The first part, truly fascinating, tells the story of how Italy emerged from the poverty that followed WW2, with its cities bombed, 50% illiteracy - but with a tradition of craftsmanship, high-quality materials and skilled local dressmakers to form the basis of a new fashion industry. The Fascist government had used fashion to create a sense of nationhood - and the exhibition opens with Italy's version of wartime Utility dresses - which have a certain non so che. The first Italian collections were shown to international buyers in Florence in 1951. Italian women couldn't afford them but buyers from American department stores were courted with invitations to Renaissance balls and suppers and prices substantially cheaper than Paris couture. The list of English buyers included Harvey Nix, Jaeger - and Brown Muff's department store in Bradford. I do love the thought of well-heeled Yorkshire ladies of substance buying into the dolce vita.
Think Bogart and Bacall in Venice, Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and Taylor and Burton falling in love as they filmed Cleopatra at Cinecittà. (The emeralds he gave her are on show.)
But then ... well for me it all went downhill.
There's no glamour or romance in designer 'labels.'
And there certainly wasn't any glamour in 1980s Benetton jumpers.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

I was looking forward to the lavish new BBC adaptation of Jamaica Inn, but two hours in and I'm drowning in Cornish mud (although it was filmed in Yorkshire), struggling to make out what anybody's saying - oohhh-arr mumble-mumble - and I don't think I'll persevere to the end. Not my favourite Daphne du Maurier, but I'm sure it wasn't as boring as this.