Wednesday, 24 May 2017


Pontormo (Jacopo Carucci), one of the great Florentine Mannerists, was born on this day in 1494. This is his Portrait of a Halberdier, probably painted during the siege of Florence. A typically intense and edgy psychological portrait, it shows a refined young man, who has clearly seen little of life, posing with all the swagger and arrogance of a seasoned soldier. The pose, boldly filling the picture space, is entirely convincing, but the unease and vulnerability in the young man's face are what hold the eye and give this beautifully executed painting its extraordinary force.
It lives in the Getty Museum in California, having been bought at auction in 1989 for an eye-popping (at the time) $35.2 million. Earlier this year, the National Gallery sadly failed in its bid to buy another Pontormo portrait, Young Man in a Red Cap, from an American billionaire for £30 million.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Godot: Leaves and Hats

Until I saw it on the shelves of my favourite local charity shop, I had no idea there was such a thing as a Folio Society edition of Waiting for Godot - Beckett's play seemed an unlikely candidate for the Society's list. But it exists, and I have it in my hands. Very handsome it is, too - designed and illustrated by the great Tom Phillips (creator of A Humument).
 There's a preface by Edward Beckett, Samuel's nephew and executor, devoted chiefly to the surprisingly complex textual history of Godot. And there's an engaging Illustrator's Note by Phillips, who recalls drawing Beckett at rehearsals of the play at the Riverside Studios. Chatting with him during breaks, Phillips wisely decided to talk only of cricket and smoking, but he did share some memories of the dying days of music hall, and mentioned that Godot reminded him of the double acts from those times (toffs and tramps, comics and stooges, etc). 'All those bowler hats, you mean?' asked Beckett. 'Yes, mmm, yes... something in that.' The play, suggested Phillips, felt like watching one such double act being invaded by another. 'Mmm, yes,' said Beckett, '... something in that.'
 All those bowler hats, indeed - at one point there are five on stage. This gave Phillips one of the motifs for his illustrations. And the other was the on-stage tree with its 'four or five leaves':
'I enjoyed speculating as to what the particular leaf was like that may or may not have been there. I assume that somewhere in a learned paper there exists a thesis on this Berkleian leaf which might also discuss the parallel numbers of leaves and hats. Fortunately I have neither seen nor read it. Thus I am happy to think in Beckett's words, "Something in that... yes, mmm, yes."
 This is very little by way of visual ammunition to be armed with, but it is enough to go on. And so, like Lucky, I rest my case.'
 The lithograph below, of Beckett watching Godot rehearsals at the Riverside Studios, forms the frontispiece of this splendid edition.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Dream Dinner Party?

Mrs Nige is of the opinion that there is something deeply, seriously weird about Theresa May (leader of the personality cult formerly known as the Conservative Party). Having seen Mrs May's guest list for her dream dinner party, I'm beginning to think Mrs N might be right... Stanley Spencer, for heaven's sake!? At a dinner party?!
 My own dream dinner party would ideally have no guests. Failing that, Anton Chekhov might be fun - I like his conversational style, as recorded in V.S. Pritchett's Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free:
'He had become notoriously an apparent listener who... was given to uttering apparently irrelevant yet gnomic or fantastic comments that killed the subject. He had once interrupted a wrangling discussion on Marxism with the eccentric suggestion: "Everyone should visit a stud farm. It is very interesting."'
 And Samuel Beckett could be counted on for plenty of silence too, and would be unlikely to want to talk about anything but cricket. To make up the numbers, perhaps I'd extend an invitation to Fernando Pessoa, knowing he would be unlikely to turn up...
 I know, I know - I should have Dr Johnson and John Keats and Oscar Wilde and... But a dinner party! Round one table? Really, it would be insufferable. 

Friday, 19 May 2017

A Piper Church and a Way Forward for the Book Trade

I was off church-crawling again today, with walking friends, on Romney Marsh - big cloud-filled skies, wide horizons, sheep pastures and claggy arable, isolated churches with strangely bare interiors, skylarks and swans, chuntering warblers in the reeds, burbling marsh frogs... The largest of the churches - St George, Ivychurch, the 'cathedral of the marsh' - was fortunate enough to receive the John Piper treatment: see above and below this post.
 On the evening before the walk, we dined in Hastings in an excellent second-hand bookshop that at night becomes an even more excellent Thai restaurant. The surroundings are of course perfect for any book-lover, and all those books lining the walls, floor to ceiling, have the welcome effect of damping echoes, so that you can actually hear what your fellow diners are saying - in contrast to most restaurants, too many of which seem designed with the opposite aim. This dual business model surely represents a way ahead for bookshops, so many of which are today struggling to survive - good books, good food and audibility. What could be more agreeable?

Tuesday, 16 May 2017


The butterfly year got off to a flying start with that early burst of warm weather - I'd spotted ten species by April 5th, which might be my best tally ever. But there it stopped (thanks to a combination of cooling weather and family and other activities) until last weekend, when I was able to add the Green-Veined White to my list.
 So, this afternoon being strangely warm and sultry, I decided to pay a return visit to the nature reserve that I'd strenuously located, but not actually entered, last year. The Small Blues weren't flying yet, but after the recent cold weather that's not surprising. However, there were plenty of lively little Small Heaths - my first of the year - and my first Common Blues, larger and bluer than their Small cousins, in fact a glorious sky blue. And there was a wonderful surprise - a Grizzled Skipper. I'd only been in the reserve a few minutes when suddenly there it was, wings spread, basking on a leaf, wholly unexpected - and then another flew past and settled nearby...
 The Grizzled Skipper is a little beauty, one of our prettiest small butterflies, and surely deserves a better, more descriptive name - I'd suggest the Spangled Skipper. Speckled Skipper? Pied Skipper?

In Happier Times

Little did I realise when I was visiting Bottesford that I was walking in the asymmetric footsteps of Laurel and Hardy.
 Stan's sister Olga (Healey) was the popular landlady of the Bull Inn there, and the comedy duo stayed at The Bull when they were appearing at the Nottingham Empire in 1952. I learned this from a plaque outside the inn, and naturally my curiosity was piqued. Although the place seemed strangely quiet for a Saturday lunchtime, it was apparently open, so we stepped inside to take a look.
 Suffice to say, we did not linger long. It must have been a much cheerier place in the days when Stan and Ollie visited - that's them above, with their wives in the snug of The Bull, 'in happier times', as they say in the papers.

Monday, 15 May 2017


I've been in Derbyshire again, staying with my cousin, walking and church-crawling. On Saturday we made it all the way to Leicestershire (northern tip thereof) to visit a church I've had in my sights for a while - St Mary's, Bottesford.
 As Pevsner says, this is a church visited more for its monuments than its architecture (and, at present, for its nesting peregrine falcons - there's a live video feed inside the bell tower from the nest high up under the spire). As Pevsner also says, the interior is, after the impressive exterior (tallest spire in Leicestershire, etc), 'dull', or at least bare and uneventful. All the action is concentrated in the chancel, which is so packed with grand monuments that the altar has had to be moved westward to become visible and usable.
 The monuments are to the Earls of Rutland - an unbroken sequence from the 1st to the 8th - and their clear purpose is to project the grandeur of the illustrious dynasty. The best of them are, as one would expect, those that date from the Golden Age of English monumental sculpture (from the late 16th century through the first few decades of the 17th).
 The 2nd Earl's monument is an overblown affair, the effigies of the Earl and his wife dwarfed by the marble table under which they lie and its bulbous, heavily decorated legs. The top of the table carries three small kneeling figures and a tall upright slab emblazoned with appropriate armorial bearings. Standing in the middle of the chancel, this is, to put it mildly, a 'statement' tomb.
 Things improve with the next four Earls, whose monuments benefit from the superior taste and workmanship of the Golden Age. Those of the 3rd and 4th Earl are from the Southwark workshop of the great Dutchman Gerard Johnson (Gheerart Janssen) and that of the 5th is by his son, Nicholas Johnson. They are good work, but have none of the emotional charge of the very best of the period (as represented by Epiphanius Evesham and Nicholas Stone). The most affecting and perhaps most artistically successful figures are often the kneelers, as with this exquisitely carved young lady.

 On the tomb of the 6th Earl - a very grand affair, at the centre of which lies the Earl between his first and second wives, the middle step of an effigial staircase - kneel these figures [below] representing two sons killed in infancy 'by wicked practice and sorcerye'. A woman and her two daughters were arrested on suspicion of witchcraft, the mother subsequently choking to death on a piece of bread she offered to eat to prove her innocence, and the two daughters being executed in 1618.

 All of which seems a million miles from the world view represented by the monuments to the 7th and 8th Earls, which were erected just 50 years later. They are from the studio of the famous Grinling Gibbons (best known for his prodigious wood carvings) and are both resolutely in the Baroque classical style. Now, rather than lying on straw mats with their hands clasped in prayer, the Earls stand in a fanciful version of Roman dress and strike appropriately imposing, more than a little camp, poses. The 8th Earl and his wife stand on either side of a rather ugly urn, on which the Earl rests an out-turned indicative hand, while his lady holds one hand to her bosom, and with the other lifts her stola to expose a well-turned leg. The effect is awkward, a little clumsy, and massively self-conscious.
 The Golden Age is truly over.