Tuesday 22 December 2015

Agatha Bas, Rembrandt, 1641
Last week, after a trying morning, I was looking to escape for a couple of hours. So where's soothing and peaceful, no crowds, no phones allowed, just a handful of art lovers absorbing some of the most ravishing pantings in London ... let's aim straight for the top and spend an afternoon at Buckingham Palace where this exhibition of Dutch paintings is just one breathtakingly stunning work after another. (And yes, I do think they should be in the National Gallery, but there's no question that the Queen's Gallery - child-free, braying middle-class mother-free, school-trip free, and only the nicest kind of tourist - is a far more pleasing experience.)
So sail up the staircase, past the Christmas tree and look what's there ... Rembrandt's Agatha Bas for starters and, oh, this is simply exquisite close-up. You want to reach in and touch it, her fan, her locket, those folds of lace, and look at that mauve-gold petticoat she's wearing underneath. This was bought by George IV.

Then there's Rembrandt's mother, which was a gift to Charles I (the first Rembrandt ever to leave the Dutch republic).
A Girl Chopping Onions, Gerrit Dou, 1646
I loved this great dish of chopped onions ... and wondered if artist and model were weeping, it must have taken so long to paint such refined detail. (Actually, it's all about sex and onions were an aphrodisiac.)

An Elderly Couple in an Arbour, Adriaen von Ostade, c1670
I admit. I fell for the waffles. There are simply not enough waffles in European art.

Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, 'The Music Lesson', Vermeer
And then Vermeer, and my favourite de Hooch ...

A Courtyard in Delft at Evening, A Woman Spinning, Pieter de Hooch, 1657
Can't you just feel the heat of this balmy evening?

Card Players in a Sunlit Room , de Hooch, 1658
And feel those rough tiles under your feet? Both of these were acquired by George IV.

An Old Man and a Girl at a Vegetable and Fish Stall, Willem van Mieris, 1732
And because I do have a penchant for cakes in art, look at these slabs of shiny gingerbread - because that's what I'm making tomorrow. (There's gingerbread figurines on the shelves, if you look closely, and I think those ducks/swans on sticks are gingerbread, too, which is giving me ideas.)

Monday 21 December 2015

I found this in a charity shop back in the summer, thought it would make a good Christmas read, and so it has proved. I haven't been smitten by other titles I've read from this British Library crime series - and I see that Rachel at Book Snob found The Lake District Murder quite as tedious as I did, because it might just as well be sub-titled The Garage Owner's Compendium to Everything You Want to Know About Petrol Deliveries. Although, having said that, I can think of some boring old blokes I've known over the years who would probably quite like droning on about cubic gallons of four-star.
However, I do love the covers in this series, which are irresistible.
Anyway, Mystery in White, originally published in 1937,  is far and away the best I've read so far and has been a nice brisk read over the weekend. (J Jefferson Farjeon was Eleanor's brother.)
It's a classic country house murder mystery with a twist, as a mismatched bunch of passengers (chorus-girl, bore, brother and sister, psychic, limp young man) find themselves stranded in a snowbound train on Christmas Eve - and struggle through the blizzard to take shelter in a deserted house where the door is conveniently unlocked, the fire is blazing, the table is set for tea ... and there is a creepy sensation that something horrible has happened - but when?
All jolly good stuff and it has put me in the mood for Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None.

Friday 11 December 2015

Should you be feeling inclined to seasonal gloom, you might be interested to know that as far back as 1420 the poet Thomas Hoccleve was suffering from SAD.

Aftir that harvest inned had hise sheves,
 And that the broun sesoun of mihelmesse
  Was come, and began the trees robbe of hir leves ...
And hem into colour of yellownesse
Had died and doun throwen undir foote
That chaunge sank into myn herte roote.

I'm finding myself fascinated by Alexandra Harris's exploration of English weather. And amazed by her scholarly versatility. (Her previous books Romantic Moderns and a delightfully short biography of Virginia Woolf are also excellent.)

Yesterday I bought a little bunch of daffodils which looks hopeful, if slightly odd against the holly. (I know, far too soon for holly but you've got to be quick around here before it all disappears from the lanes.)

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Only a few tell-tale crumbs left in the first box of mincepies (I knew I shouldn't have opened them) ... But I'm three mugs of tea and three episodes into Dickensian - and it is absolutely fabulous!
It's a murder mystery - who killed Jacob Marley, Scrooge's nasty business partner who is known to have been paying by the hour for the attentions of Nancy(from Oliver Twist)? Inspector Bucket (from Bleak House) is on the case.
It is enormous fun because everybody's in it ... young Miss Havisham, who has yet to be jilted, is seemingly BFF with the future Lady Dedlock (Bleak House) who is house model at the Mantalini gown shop (Nicholas Nickleby); young Peter Cratchit has a crush on Little Nell and Sairey Gamp is knocking back the gin down The Three Cripples. The set is simply wonderful. And if you occasionally find yourself wondering, errr... was that from Martin Chuzzlewit or Our Mutual Friend? it doesn't really matter. It is brilliantly clever and I'm sure Dickens would have loved it.

It has been a Dickensian week here as we had an early Christmas outing on Sunday to see A Christmas Carol. The ghosts were suitably spooky and scary - and the London backdrop was terrific, if not on the BBC scale. But it went on just a bit too long - a few too many warbled carols  - and if I'm honest I preferred the Muppets' version which was a Christmas treat a few years ago. I'm half expecting Kermit to pop up in Dickensian.

Monday 7 December 2015

Struggling to find something that I'd really enjoy reading over the weekend, I browsed my Virago shelf of charity book finds that I've yet to get around to reading. Was The Brimming Cup what I was looking for ... sadly, it wasn't. I've read The Home-maker - Dorothy Canfield's 1924 novel about a role-swapping husband and wife, interesting because it's so ahead of its time, even if the ending is a bit of a letdown as they let themselves be browbeaten by public opinion. I know I've read Her Son's Wife from 1926, though I can't remember much about it. But The Brimming Cup .... aaargh, how earnest, how preachy, how dull! It starts in 1909 when a young couple on the brink of married life vow always to be true to what's best in themselves .. then it's fast forward to 1920 when Marise, the wife - a sainted bloody Angel in the Home if ever there was one - begins to feel a nagging twinge that she has lost her own identity in nappyland. She feels a frisson of attraction towards the millionaire who has conveniently moved in next door and who unfortunately reminded me of that spivvy looking American who plays Mr Selfridge in that ghastly TV series. No, Marise, hang on in there - you will find true fulfilment in another few decades with the invention of Persil when your whites will never be whiter. You are so fine, so wholesome, such a perfect example of womanhood ... and such a crashing bore.

Middle-aged lady in bookshop (Shurely not me?) gushes encouragingly: 'Look at this lovely Christmas book ...'
Nobody looks at the lovely Christmas book. If she is being honest, lady privately admits that she wouldn't have thought much of it c1965 and probably would have preferred a Bunty annual.
We came away with a rather more enticing volume about turning your brother into a zombie slave.
And the really cool one about the 14yo spy being shot at by international terrorists. I think a shark came into it, too, but that may have been the next one in the series. ('This is a really, really rare book. It's not in the library.')
Anyway, I don't think I'd want to be friends with the kind of boy who reads lovely Christmas books. And a zombie slave might be useful to have round the house.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Everybody is saying it, but I'll say it, too - Cate Blanchett is quite brilliant as Carol. One thing I really enjoyed about the film is the 1950s colour palette, those flashes of bright coral against the muted blues, the vibrance of a red and yellow cab in a sombre street scene. Director Todd Haynes also made Far From Heaven, his homage to Douglas Sirk and All that Heaven Allows. Interesting piece here about the photographers - many of them women - who influenced him.
Elevenses, Charles Spencelayh

Looking for something else entirely, I came across this painting yesterday and immediately thought, "I know that artist," although the name escaped me. But then I remembered seeing this at the Harris Gallery, Preston. A critic once described Spencelayh as a painter of old codgers, which seems exactly right - but he's a dab hand too at loaves of bread and everyday china. It's not what I'd spend £67,000 on    but I do enjoy all the clutter and detail.