Wednesday 29 March 2017

I've been enjoying this book slowly, not so much for the wealth of architectural detail but for wonderful stories like this.
Would you have guessed that this is a design - not for a castle in Spain - but for Selfridge Castle, drawn up for the flamboyant owner of the department store - near Bournemouth! It was never built. Probably just as well.

Tuesday 21 March 2017

Can it really be 30 years? Apparently, it can. It was 1986 when I saw Pauline Collins as Shirley Valentine in the West End - so long ago that I'd actually forgotten it was a one-woman show as I'd got it muddled in my mind with the film that came out a couple of years later. 
To be honest, I wasn't expecting too much when I booked for the 30th anniversary revival of the play - but what a fun night it turned out to be and a terrific performance from an actress I think we were supposed to recognise from TV but, of course, we'd never heard of her. (It's touring until November.) 
Coincidentally, I saw Pauline Collins a couple of weeks ago still typecast as a similarly put-upon housewife who escapes not to Greece but to the Ile de Ré in a truly dire film The Time of Their Lives ... with Joan Collins, pretty much playing herself as a faded Hollywood star with a gammy hip who escapes from a care home. You have to hand it to Dame Joan for being game enough to wipe off her makeup and take off her wig. It could have been fun, but it wasn't - because whoever wrote the clunky, clichéd script was no Willy Russell. Shirley Valentine still feels fresh and funny.

Sunday 19 March 2017

View of Chichester Cathedral from the Deanery, John Piper, 1975
Feeling Sunday-afternoon grumpy - I'm sure it's a throwback to all that never-quite-started weekend homework from 40-odd years ago - I took myself into town for an hour to Two Temple Place. I've always liked this view of Chichester Cathedral and it looks exactly the same today.

In Temple Gardens, they were filming Mary Poppins Returns - to London in the Depression, apparently. I peeped through the railings but couldn't see anything except busy-looking crew and lots of   trucks and cherry-pickers. If Mary was planning another Jolly Holiday with 91-year-old Bert, I hope she brought her parrot-headed umbrella  - because it looked as if was going to start chucking it down any minute.

Thursday 16 March 2017

It has been a very theatrical week. First up was a visit to Wilton's Music Hall which has been on my one-day-I-must-get round-to-it list for years. I vaguely remember having a peep about 30 years ago, when it wasn't even a building site, just a wreck and a fund-raising project. Well, I finally made it. Quite a lonely walk from Tower Hill - with a Jack the Ripper museum to spook you - so I was glad I'd brought a friend. (Don't worry, you're more likely to be mown down by killer cyclists and joggers.)
The Victorian music hall was quite different from what I'd imagined ... I was expecting red velvet and gold paint - but Wilton's was never grand, it was for sailors and dockers and they've kept all its shabbiness. We were fascinated by the building and went upstairs to explore all the nooks and crannies.
The play was Frankenstein ... I spent the first 10 minutes thinking, please God, don't let it all be mime! It was acted with - gusto - and greeted with the usual whoops and screams from the mostly young audience - but it did feel a bit like a drama studio exercise. Never mind, we'd come for the place not the play.

Last night, though, I saw Imelda Staunton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 5* from all the critics and 5* from me. She's terrific.

A mid-morning whim got me the ticket ... but even as I left house I was thinking, 'Do I really want to spend the afternoon in a Jacobean bloodbath? ' But I'd never been to Sam Wanamaker's candlelit Playhouse and I wanted to see it. I've always been a bit ooooh-er wary of Webster. But guess what - it was terrific. From my seat in the upper gallery, I could have reached up and touched the painted clouds on the ceiling. And in the glimmering (real) candlelight, it felt like 400 years had rolled away and I was watching the first performance of The White Devil in 1612.

Sunday 12 March 2017

On my walk through the lanes yesterday ... the last of the snowdrops, clouds of white blossom, daffodils and primroses, crocuses and scilla and, in gardens, the first tulips and magnolia.
Today, sadly, tee-shirt weather has reverted to coat and scarf weather.
But I do have a jug of blossom by my desk.

Saturday 11 March 2017

Self-portrait, c1915
I'd been holding out for a sunny day to see the Vanessa Bell exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, because it's not just the art, it's a green, leafy saunter from the station, and tea in the garden, and sunshine through the stained glass in the mausoleum ...
So it didn't really matter that I'm a lukewarm Bloomsbury-ite. I can get quite swept away with lifestyle envy at Charleston. But I'm not convinced that any of it translates well into an art gallery setting. If they hadn't lived in squares and loved in triangles - what a brilliant marketing ploy - would we remember any of them, except for Virginia? I can't see that Vanessa had an original thought ... it's a bit of Matisse here, a bit of Cézanne there, and it all looks so much better on the walls at home.
Still, it made a pleasant afternoon out, though I whizzed around in half-an-hour because - well, there just isn't very much to it, is there? (Okay, I admit, I'd really like one of her rugs.)
I was lucky because I'd been expecting hordes of Bloomsbury-genuflectors but there was hardly anyone there. (Got chatting with a couple of gallery attendants who were definitely not worshippers at the shrine and they clearly would have given Vanessa a C-minus for trying.)
But I do like the fabrics and that sense of painting happening in the middle of a domestic life. (Okay, I know that nanny features in the paintings!)
I liked the texture of the canvas coming though Vanessa's loose-weave grey dress in the self-portrait.

Virginia Woolf, c1912
'My God! what clothes you are responsible for!' wrote Virginia, cattily describing an outfit worn by their sister-in-law. 'Karin's clothes wrenched my eyes from the sockets - a skirt barred with reds and yellows of the violent kind, a pea-green blouse on top with a gaudy handkerchief on her head, supposed to be the very boldest taste. I shall retire into dove colour and old lavender, with a lace collar and lawn wristlets.' I wonder what she would have made of the wispy slips of silk - for anorexic Barbie dolls - selling for £195 in the gallery shop. An impulse buy along with a Charleston fridge magnet? You'd need a fridge lock first.

View of the Pond at Charleston, c1919

Many years ago I remember having a lovely picnic here beside the pond. It wasn't quite the same wandering down to Dulwich village for a deliciously greasy sausage roll from Gail's Bakery. (No wonder I don't fit into little Charleston dresses.)

The Other Room, Late 1930s
This one belongs to Bryan Ferry. And it's probably cheaper than a Matisse.

Interior with the Artists' Daughter, 1935-6

And this is just armchair envy ...

Wednesday 8 March 2017

Pat Whalen, Alice Neel, 1935
I'd never heard of Alice Neel until I encountered this portrait of an Irish-American union leader last week at the Royal Academy's America after the Fall exhibition. And then she cropped up again - one of the women artists celebrated in BBC's new Imagine series. So I've just grabbed an hour over lunch to watch the riveting documentary, made by her grandson.

Alice Neel was born on January 28, 1900, four weeks younger than the century. Her penetrating gaze caught the individuality of her sitters but also seized on something about the era in which they lived. (And managed to keep on doing this into the 1970s and 80s at the end of her life.)

The documentary is a fascinating account of what it costs to be an women artist and the fall-out to those closest to her. For much of her life, Alice Neel worked in obscurity, struggling as a single mother on benefits. Her work was out of kilter with fashionable abstract expressionism; she painted humanity. Her uncompromising need to paint One daughter died as a baby; another was taken away to Cuba by her father and when Alice saw her again as an adult, she didn't even recognise her: that very beautiful young woman later committed suicide; Alice's two sons - one of them cruelly bullied by a charismatic, intellectual stepfather - come across as damaged souls, fearful of Bohemian chaos and yearning for bourgeois security.
At the end, her daughter-in-law makes the point that Alice's work was eventually recognised and she became famous and so it was worth it; but if she had never been recognised, would it still have been worth it? Not a question that would be asked in quite the same way of a man.

I also watched the programme about Jeanette Winterson, thinking I'd heard it all before - then realised it was a repeat from a few years ago. I'd still like to sit down with Mrs W and hear another side of the story.

Monday 6 March 2017

Can't remember when I last enjoyed anything on television as much as this - but the new BBC adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall is quite perfect. Jack Whitehall is absolutely right as the hapless Paul Pennyfeather - 'I expect you'll become a schoolmaster, sir. That's what most of the gentlemen does that gets sent down for indecent behaviour' - David Suchet is headmaster of the third-rate public school where he ends up teaching and Douglas Hodge is his boozy colleague Captain Grimes who always ends up 'in the soup.'

Saturday 4 March 2017

American Gothic, Grant Wood, 1930

The Royal Academy was heaving this afternoon, a bit too much shuffling in front of each painting ... and, of course, the biggest crowd was in front of American Gothic which has never before left America. I've never been to Chicago where it lives, and missed my chance to see it in a show in Washington some years ago because I was only there for a couple of days and there was so much to pack in. I used to think it was creepy - a bit Bates Motel - probably because it has spawned so many parodies. Now I see worry - grit - resilience. I'd never noticed the aspidistra and the Swiss cheese plant on the porch or the tendril of hair escaping from that tightly-controlled bun. The models were Wood's sister Nan (who had a more up-to-date hair-do in real life) and his dentist; they are supposed to be father and daughter, not husband and wife.

 Gas, Edward Hopper, 1940

The exhibition covers the decade of the Great Depression when unemployment peaked in at 25.2% in 1933; that's 12.8m people out of work. It's the era of dance marathons for big money prizes - the Dust Bowl and The Grapes of Wrath - and escapism at the movies.

New York Movie, Edward Hopper, 1939
The New York movie is probably Lost Horizon - which the pensive usherette will probably see three times a day for a fortnight. (My mum had a part-time job as an usherette and often groaned about the films she knew by heart.)

Home, Sweet Home, Charles Sheeler, 1931
Apart from the big names - Hopper and Wood, Georgia O'Keeffe (only one) and an early Jackson Pollock - most of the artists in the exhibition were completely new to me; now I'm a fan of Charles Sheeler and his wonderful rugs.

Thanksgiving, Doris Lee, c1935
Complete hoaky ... but I can't resist a rolling-pin. Amazingly, this won first prize at the Art Institute of Chicago's American painting exhibition that year.


It wasn't planned but only last night I finished this 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis; my battered and tea-stained library copy hadn't been checked out since the 1960s but suddenly there's a wait-list for it and, having been re-issued by Penguin for the age of Trump, it's currently no 4 on the paperback bestseller list. To be honest, I won't be hurrying to read any more Sinclair Lewis; his flabby writing style almost had me giving up after 100 pages, but I'm glad I stuck it out - it gets quite gripping by the end as ignorant, demagogic president Buzz Windrip introduces his own brand of terrifying downhome Fascism to America. Aside from his dramatic glory, Buzz Windrip was a Professional Common Man. Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man. He believed in the desirability and therefore the sanctity of thick buckwheat cakes with adulterated maple syrup, and the superiooority of anyone who possessed a million dollars. He regarded spats, walking sticks, caviar, titles, tea-drinking, poetry not daily syndicated in newspapers and all foreigners, possibly excepting the British, as degenerate.