Tuesday, 26 July 2016

All Souls

What with all these butterflies, I realise that I haven't written about a book for quite a while now. It isn't that I haven't been reading, rather that I've been having to read a lot of books for review (in that excellent magazine Literary Review, since you ask). However, one book I have managed to read recently for my own pleasure was Javier Marias's All Souls.
 Reading A Heart So White gave me an appetite for more, so I moved on to one of his slightly earlier novels, All Souls. The Penguin edition of this comes emblazoned with two wildly misleading review quotations: 'Probably the wittiest novel set in British academia since David Lodge's Changing Places' (Daily Mail) and 'A dazzling example of the Oxford novel' (TLS). A dazzling example of the Marias novel perhaps, but anyone expecting a witty campus comedy is in for a few surprises.
 There is some acute observation of Oxford's curious ways by Marias's narrator - a visiting Spanish academic, detached and mildly bewildered - and there's one comic set piece, an account of a high table dinner descending into chaos, that owes more to Tom Sharpe than David Lodge. A couple of other scenes use the grammar of comedy, but not really for comic effect. For the rest, this is a ruminative tale of time and memory, love and death - of 'all souls', dead and alive - centred on the narrator's two-year stay in Oxford, his rather desultory love affair with a married woman, and his obsession with an obscure author (who actually existed, and two black-and-white photographs of whom are embedded in the text, Sebald-style).
 As with A Heart So White, Marias builds his narrative out of elements that initially seem quite unrelated, even irrelevant, but which feed back into the story as it develops, with all the relations between them revealed at the end. It's a clever and intriguing way of writing a novel, but I didn't find All Souls quite as clever or as intriguing as A Heart So White; it didn't seem to have as much depth, there wasn't quite as much going on. But never mind: they say Marias is an author whose quality can't really be judged by a single work, as many of the novels resonate with each other, even sharing characters and situations. I'm certainly going to read more of him (indeed my current bedtime reading includes his little book of biographical sketches - or glimpses - of authors, Written Lives). I've got the Marias bug.
 By the way, there's more about Marias on a fascinating blog called Vertigo, which has the works of W.G. Sebald as its core interest but ranges far beyond them.

Monday, 25 July 2016

And the Hairstreaks Just Keep On Coming...

I apologise for returning so soon to the subject of Hairstreaks - though perhaps I shouldn't, as my White-Letter post is attracting surprisingly high numbers. Have I flushed out a hitherto unsuspected Hairstreak cult? Could it be those Norwegians?
 Be that as it may, I must report that today I had another Hairstreak encounter. This time it was the oak-loving Purple Hairstreak, and the encounter was hard-won, unlike the glorious surprise of that White-Letter Hairstreak last week. I was on Mitcham Common, where the extensive 'rough' of the golf course has become something of a butterfly haven. This afternoon - which was not very sunny or warm - the rough was alive with Small Coppers (of which I'd seen very few this year) and Small/Essex Skippers, and a few Marbled Whites were flying, as well as my first Brown Argus of the year (last year I'd seen dozens by this stage). The usual Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers and Ringlets were everywhere too, and the whole area was a butterfly lover's delight.
 While not enjoying these grassland beauties, I was scanning every oak tree - they are dotted and clumped all over Mitcham Common - in the hope of spotting a Purple Hairstreak. This is rarely easy: though the Purple Hairstreak isn't quite as elusive as the White-Letter, it does prefer to spend most of its time in the treetops, making only occasional short flights and seldom descending to ground level or even eye level. It's been several years since I saw one.
 After much oak-scanning I thought I'd spotted one in flight about two-thirds of the way up a tree, but it disappeared too soon for me to have a chance of positively identifying it. Some while later, while peering into a rather larger oak, I caught sight of something silvery flying out of the neighbouring (or rather contiguous) lime tree and settling on a spray of oak about eight feet from the ground. Squinting up through the leaves, I found it. It had settled, wings folded, on the stem of a leaf, and there was no mistaking that hairstreaked underwing - this was the Purple cousin of my heart-stopping White-Letter and the Greens of the spring. It seemed to have settled down for a rest in its sheltered position, and clearly had no intention of opening its wings - so I never found out whether it was male or female. But I had found my Purple Hairstreak, and after a while I went on my way rejoicing.
 It seems this is after all going to be my Year of the Hairstreak. Though I'm not likely to make it to the Oxfordshire stronghold of the very rare Black Hairstreak, I am in with a chance of seeing all four of my Surrey hairstreaks. If, that is, I can find a Brown this year. Watch this space later in the summer.

Into the Woods

The other day I was in the National Gallery (top tip: it's the best place to escape the London heat - perfect temperature control and great art wherever you look) and went to have a look at George Shaw's punningly titled new exhibition, My Back to Nature. I've liked Shaw ever since I first saw his extraordinary paintings of the Coventry housing estate - Tile Hill - where he grew up. He paints not with oils but with Humbrol enamel paint - the stuff we boys used to paint our Airfix kits with - which must present mind-boggling technical challenges; and he's habitually painted on sheets of MDF, but for this exhibition, in deference to his surroundings and his inspirations, he has switched to canvas.
 Shaw has been working at the National Gallery as an 'associate artist' for two years, free to roam the galleries at all hours and work in a studio within the building. The pictures in My Back to Nature are painted in response to works on the gallery walls - notably the three great Titian Diana paintings, and works by Poussin, Bellini (The Assassination of St Peter Martyr), Crivelli (The Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels) and Constable (Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds). Shaw's subject matter, however, remains firmly rooted in the urban edgelands that are his spiritual home - in this case, a patch of scruffy urban woodland, strewn with rubbish and strange abandoned objects.
 These woodland scenes, meticulously painted, are imbued with mystery, magic and possibility - just as such places are in reality, or seemed to us in our early years, when urban woodland was a private place of secrets, transgressions, initiations. The pictures are all empty of people (with one exception, The Call of Nature, which depicts the artist urinating against a tree - his back to nature indeed) and many have the sense of something interrupted, of people or presences having just left, perhaps lurking somewhere out of sight (most strikingly in The Heart of the Wood, below). They have resonant titles that chime intriguingly with the mundane subject matter: The School of Love (title from Coreggio) is a grubby abandoned mattress, The Old Master depicts a tree with a crude cock-and-balls sprayed on it and The Old Country a tree with a decidedly anatomical cleft, Natural Selection shows pages from porn mags scattered at the foot of a tree (other porn litter is depicted under the titles The Lost and The Tossed - Shaw likes a joke).
 All this talk of pornography and litter might suggest that Shaw's paintings are exercises in gritty dirty realism, but they project something much bigger, more ambitious and more potent than that, something that has much to do with the artist's long immersion in the Gallery's collections. Classical myth (especially metamorphoses) and Christian iconography imbue these pictures, setting up powerful resonances - and the extent to which Shaw has immersed himself in Christian imagery is emphasised dramatically in a remarkable series of drawings in which the artist assumed the positions of Christ in the traditional Stations of the Cross. The climax of the exhibition though is a set of three large canvases hung together - The Rude ScreenMöcht’ ich zurücke wieder wanken (a line from the eighth song of Winterreise) and Every Brush Stroke Is Torn from My Body (a quotation from Tony Hancock's The Rebel). It's hard to convey the impact these paintings - and many others in the exhibition - make when you see them on the canvas. I can only suggest that you head for the Sunley Room at the National Gallery and see for yourself. My Back to Nature is on until the end of October.







Thursday, 21 July 2016

White-Letter Day

Yesterday was a Summer day. A summer day too, of course - and a hot and sunny one - but also a day on which Mrs N and I have the care of the entirely adorable granddaughter with the seasonal name, Summer.
 We had had the traditional tub of ice cream outside the café at Nonsuch Mansion (Tudor Gothick, Jeffrey Wyatville, 1802-6) and were strolling along the woodland path back towards Cheam Park when a nondescript little brown butterfly flew down and settled a few yards in front of us. What could that be? I wondered idly (it was very hot). The little brown butterfly folded its wings and at that point I believe I audibly gasped. There was no mistaking those underwings, that fine white streak ending in a semblance of the letter W, the orange-and-black border, the little tail springing from the hindwing... My friends, it was a White-Letter Hairstreak!
This news might not mean much to some (many?) of you, but let me assure you - to see a White-Letter Hairstreak like this, on the ground, settled (and this one settled not once but twice, with a little flight in between) is something that very rarely happens. This is a butterfly that is content to spend its life in the tree tops - elm-tree tops - feeding on honeydew, making the odd jerky little flight (more of a hop really), and seldom showing itself at all to the human world below. The last time I saw one - a faded specimen that seemed to have lost the will to live - was half a century ago.
 Being an elm-dependent species, the White-Letter Hairstreak took a hit when Dutch elm disease struck, but fought back very successfully, adapting to hybrid elms and wych elm in the absence of the good old English tree. It could in fact be one of our most abundant butterflies - and yet your chances of ever seeing one are very low indeed. Serious butterfly watchers resort to binoculars to get a glimpse of the White-Letter Hairstreak as it pursues its treetop life (which seems dangerously close to 'twitching' to me). In Partick Barkham's The Butterfly Isles he describes standing with a White-Letter enthusiast in a public park in Ponders End, feeling self-conscious as he trained a telescope on a couple of scruffy hybrid elms in the hope of getting a glimpse of underwing. He did.
 Vladimir Nabokov in Speak, Memory recalls, years after the event, a frustrating encounter with a White-Letter Hairstreak:
 'I remember one day when I warily brought my net close and closer to an uncommon Hairstreak that had daintily settled on a sprig. I could clearly see the white W on its chocolate-brown underside. Its wings were closed and the inferior ones were rubbing against each other in a curious circular motion - possibly producing some small, blithe crepitation pitched too high for a human ear to catch. I had long wanted that particular species and, when near enough, I struck. You have heard champion tennis players moan after muffing an easy shot... But that day nobody (except my older self) could see me shake out a piece of twig from an otherwise empty net and stare at a hole in the tartalan.'
 Truly an elusive butterfly to have escaped even the voracious net of Vladimir Vladimirovich.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Not Sickert

While I was in Derbyshire, my cousin and I crossed the border to spend a (grey) day in Sheffield, a city that is quite transformed - for the better - from the one I knew in the early Seventies. It was good to revisit the Graves Art Gallery (housed in a grand art deco / classical building), where I spent many a lunch hour browsing. The permanent collection is manageably small, with a particularly well chosen selection of British works from the early 20th century - among them the picture shown above, Homeward Bound, Rue St Remy, Dieppe, which I instantly identified as a Sickert. But it isn't: it's by one Sylvia Gosse, a name new to me, who was a friend, pupil, colleague, 'firm friend and guardian angel' of Sickert. She shared his fascination with the streets of Dieppe and other urban scenes, and her pictorial technique owed much to her master, to the point where her pictures were sometimes mistaken for his, even in their lifetimes.
Sylvia Gosse was the daughter of the eminent man of letters Sir Edmund Gosse and therefore extremely well connected. Her mother was a pupil of the painter Ford Madox Brown (Ford Madox Ford's grandfather), her uncle was Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema , and she was acquainted with most of the literary and artistic lions of her day. And yet her demeanour was shy, shrinking and self-effacing, and she was happy to remain in the background of the Camden Town, Fitzroy Street and London Group circles, with all of which she was closely associated. A portrait by Harold Gilman (below) conveys the retiring character of this considerable artist, who surely deserves to be better known. I'l be looking out for her - and remembering that what looks like a Sickert isn't always a Sickert...

Monday, 18 July 2016

A Cavendish Monument

So, talking of 17th-century church monuments, these allegorical figures, carved with extraordinary, surely non-native skill, adorn the tomb of Ann Keighley (died 1627), wife of William Cavendish, the first Duke of Devonshire, in the church of St John the Baptist, Ault Hucknall. The church, near the Elizabethan prodigy house Hardwick Hall, is grander than might be expected for its remote location, but it is still a huge surprise to find monumental sculpture of this quality and in this stlye in a Derbyshire village church.
 The figures represent Modesty, Prudence, Love, Obedience and Piety, and they have evidently been knocked about a bit; three are headless. They look thoroughly Italian, as does the tomb on which they stand, which is topped by a kind of hipped roof from the corbels of which spring the five statues. Nothing much seems to be known about this extraordinary monument, and no names have (as far as I can find out) been suggested for its maker.
 By a quirk of history, this obscure village church also contains the tomb of the great English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who lived for many years in the care of the Cavendish family. His handsome tomb slab, with a Latin inscription celebrating his learning and renown, lies at the foot of Ann Keighley's monument. He died at Hardwick at the grand age of 91, kept fit (according to Aubrey) by much walking, the occasional game of (real) tennis, and, when he was sure no one was about, singing at the top of his voice.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Hum Sublime

This improvisation is so glorious I just had to share it with any who might not have come across it (with a tip of the hat to Jonathan Law).
As for me, I'm off to Derbyshire for a few days tomorrow. I hope to indulge my growing obsession with 17th-century church monuments while I'm there...