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.

I've been enjoying Jane's recent posts about stained glass. I was in Somerset a few days ago and popped in for a look at this quirky Victorian chapel. The glass was modern and, frankly, awful. But I'm awarding myself extra I-Spy points - because it's not often that you get a tractor and farm animals in a church window.
Lovely to see lambs and hedgerows full of primroses .. and realise that spring in the country is the real thing.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Rosehips and Iris reticulata

Cornflower in Yellow Jug

Blazing Tulips below Magnolia
This is a small, but very pleasing exhibition of paintings by Emily Patrick that's on for another week. I only had a few minutes to spare this afternoon but that was time enough to wish I had the money to buy one. No surprise that they were nearly all sold. I was dashing to meet a friend at the Royal Academy where, despite the 5* reviews, I found myself underwhelmed by Richard Diebenkorn. But you can't look and chat at the same time, so maybe I'm not being fair.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Does it live up to the hype? It does ... it's ravishing, utterly spell-binding, the fashion show of the century. Even bigger and better - so they say, I wouldn't know - than when it was on in New York.

Savage Beauty, the long-awaited Alexander McQueen show at the V&A makes you feel as if you've disappeared down a rabbithole to find yourself in an alien world of strange, beautiful creatures.

It's exquisite, macabre - and it feels like being immersed in some extraordinary theatrical performance. (In my case, with a walk-on role as Boring Middle-Aged Person in a Raincoat.)

But in this alternative universe, inhabited by people 10inches taller and many stones lighter, there are gowns of clamshells and crimson feathers, a coat of golden goose-feathers, jackets embroidered with human hair and slippers embroidered with gold bullion ...

I spent nearly an hour sitting in the colossal, black-lacquered Cabinet of Curiosities, marvelling at headdresses like branches of coral and animal horns -

I coveted an exquisite Philip Treacy bird's nest hat made of mallard wings and jewelled eggs -

Learned a new word. Plumassier - 

And caught my breath at the wraith-like apparition of Kate Moss who made me think of Catherine Earnshaw rising from her grave.

I'm not sure whether the V&A is strictly controlling the throughput of visitors or whether I was extraordinarily lucky this afternoon (I got there at about 3.30) because there was space to stroll and sit and marvel - and for a few moments at the end of the afternoon, I was all alone in the Cabinet of Curiosities. I'd love to go back, but it wouldn't be the same experience shuffling round in a crowd.

This is a purely visual exhibition. It tells you almost nothing about McQueen. I liked that. I get distracted by words and labels. Being a word-y kind of person, I don't have the self-discipline to ignore the outpouring of too much information.

It was like walking through a work of art - and for once I didn't need to read all about it.

Saturday 14 March 2015

London: The Old Horse Guards from St James's Park, c1749, Canaletto
Off yesterday for a breath of spring air in the Cotswolds and a visit to lovely Compton Verney. This Canaletto - normally in Tate Britain - belongs to Andrew Lloyd-Webber and I love the detail. (You need to click on the image.) The servants beating carpets outside Downing Street, the housemaid dusting the windowsill, bedclothes airing in an open window and a tiny figure just visible up in an attic - not to mention two chaps having a wee up against the wall. And to think this was where they held the Olympics volleyball! I wonder what the fashionable ladies and housemaids would have made of it?

Capriccio: St Paul's and a Venetian Canal, c 1795, William Marlow

This is another painting on loan from Tate Britain and I've never paid it much attention before, but yesterday it jumped off the wall at me. And something about the crumbling palazzi and the timelessness of St Paul's made me think of wartime images like this ...
St Paul's 1941, Duncan Grant

Sometimes I set out to see one thing, then something else takes my fancy when I get there - and yesterday, although I was aiming to see Canalettos, I found myself lingering in this small exhibition of early black and white photographs by Martin Parr who is now renowned for exuberant colour. But in the mid -1970s, colour was for snapshots and commercial photgraphy and, if you wanted to be taken seriously, you worked in b/w. (Anybody remember the first newspaper colour pix and how frivolous they seemed in a serious monochrome world?)   
Parr was in his early 20s when he moved to Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, straight from art school - and he captured a world (now gentrified and completely changed) that still revolved around chapel and hill-farming. These were hard-working, frugal, self-reliant people - who were fond of tea and cake. Ladies in hats and Crimplene coats with cavernous handbags and varicose veins enjoy sit-down chapel teas of fairy buns and buttered malt loaf and liberally-sugared tea. There was a bit of a scrum for slabs of pork pie and boiled eggs at the Mayor's inaugural banquet (above) and middleaged men got together for the AGM of the Ancient Order of Henpecked Husbands. (It disbanded in the mid-1970s; but presumably would have become redundant, anyway, given today's lesbian demographic!) There was a butcher's shop that displayed joints on bloody china platters in the window and a baker's that sold wobbly custard tarts; you could buy coal, clogs and corduroy - because people still made their own trousers. Women took pride in the whiteness of their nets and clothes hung on a maiden to dry above the fire. And although I grew up on the other side of the Pennines, there was so much here that I remembered and it's shocking to think that it's 40 years ago and it's history. 

I've also been watching this TV series which brought back memories, although unfortunately the mother in this family who are eating their way through the decades from 1950s Austerity and into the future would have been a grimly incompetent cook in any era. (I wanted to shake her when she dished up cold fried liver and cold cauliflower because any 1950s housewife could surely have managed liver and onions and Oxo gravy.) But, heavens, it took me back ... I'd completely forgotten Rise and Shine orange juice, a rare treat in our house, and the crispy noodles on a 1970s Vesta Chow Mein (though I preferred the reconstituted chicken and shrivelled prawns in a Vesta paella.) But surely these were never served up for family meals; they'd have been far too expensive if you bought enough to go round. 

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Enjoyed this beautifully-made film adaptation of Suite Française last night - with Kristin Scott Thomas as the mother-in-law from hell. In fact, since I couldn't remember a thing about the book - I know I read it, I know I enjoyed it, but it seems to have homogenised with a lot of other wartime novels in my befuddled, middle-aged brain into a kind of WW2 vichyssoise ... well, it was all as good as new to me, and if there were any deviations from the book, they went over my head. 
What struck me most - given the very tragic end that was so soon to befall novelist Irène Némirovsky - was her generosity of spirit in portraying the decent German officer who is billeted on two Frenchwomen. 

Coincidentally, over the weekend, I read this very slim novella about a brief, intense friendship at school between a middle-class Jewish boy and a young German aristocrat in 1932, during the rise of Nazism, after coming across EmilyBooks' intriguing review here. It is infinitely more moving and convincing than the clumsy emotional manipulation of Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - which I loathed. If you read it, don't - whatever you do - peep at the ending because the very last sentence is a punch in the guts that I didn't see coming.

Sunday 8 March 2015

Gardens in the Pound, Cookham, Berkshire, Stanley Spencer, c1937
A Sunday afternoon stroll around Cookham, playing 'spot the painting.' The houses are still there, even if lobelias have gone out of fashion.
I saw a family coming out of Stanley Spencer's house on the High Street and was dying to ask if there was still a Williams pear tree in the garden, a laburnum, an apple tree with giant apples, a cherry tree and a walnut tree and yellow marguerites. You can't see the back garden from the street. But I missed my chance and they were gone ...

Friday 6 March 2015

Wandering around town these last few days with this quirky guide in my bag has made me take notice of buildings that have become invisible through familiarity. I barely glance at the church around the corner save to admire the snowdrops and blossom in spring ... but now I'm seeing it through new eyes as 'one of the most bewildering buildings in London,' built when the architect was 'on the razzmatazz, out for a day in the suburbs.'
But my best find so far has been a tiny Georgian alleyway, so tucked away that I didn't know it existed though it's just off St Martin's Lane and I have been walking past it unawares for 30 years. I wonder what it's like at night?

Wednesday 4 March 2015

The Cup of Chocolate, Renoir, 1877-8
Step into the art dealer's apartment and see what he chooses to hang in his own grand salon. (Don't you just love that vase of white lilac and raspberry ripple tulips?)
Feel a twinge of envy when you see the drawing room door and think that he actually lived with this as furniture and fittings. I couldn't find an image, so imagine it ... A big white door panelled with six flower paintings by Monet: Japanese lilies, chrysanthemums, gladioli, a basket of apples (okay, so they're not all flowers), pink and white azaleas. (To give you an idea, these anemones decorated one of the other doors in the same room.)
And imagine ... that door is now in somebody's private collection.  Is it now Art up on a wall? Or do people (well-mannered people, of course, who never slam or flounce out of rooms) actually turn the handle and walk through? Why do gallery labels never tell you what you really want to know?

I couldn't resist heading to the National Gallery this afternoon for the first day of Inventing Impressionism, their exhibition about the renowned Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, the man who bought Monets, Manets and Renoirs in bulk. I expected it to be thronged with a heaving mass of people. But to my delight, there weren't all that many there and there was more than enough room to stand back and admire.

I was wondering how it would compare to the exhibition I saw in Paris a few years ago about another ground-breaking dealer Ambroise Vollard. This set the bar very high; it was one of the best exhibitions that I expect ever to see in my lifetime and I spent a record five hours walking around. To my disappointment, the National Gallery exhibition has nothing like the wealth of art historical detail that made the Paris show so fascinating. (To be fair, they haven't got the space.)

But it is still a feast of one gorgeous painting after another. From the moment you walk in and meet  Durand-Ruel's family, by his favourite artist Renoir ...

The Daughters of Paul Durand-Ruel, 1882

And rediscover old favourites, dahlias and cabbages ...
The Artist's Garden in Argenteuil, Claude Monet, 1873

Wondering how many times you've seen this one without ever noticing the cigarette butt and spent matches under their feet.
Dance at Bougival, Renoir, 1883
And you wish you could have seen Monet's solo exhibition of 1883 ...

The Galettes, Claude Monet, 1882
Because how many artists have painted such delicious apple pies?