Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Election Fever

The election campaign is under way (contain, if you can, your excitement), and last night's BBC news gave us a chilling foretaste of what's to come. We were treated to 20 minutes and more of stupefying tedium, anchored by Huw 'Mogadon' Edwards, live (if the word can be applied to him) from outside 10 Downing Street - plus, as if that weren't enough, a little bit more at the end of the bulletin. I've lived through quite a few elections in my time, and I  have never known one where the gulf between the frenzied excitement of those inside the politico-media bubble and the sullen apathy of the disenchanted electorate (outside Caledonia) has been quite so vast. I fear the two surest outcomes of this campaign will be a low turnout and a steep decline in viewing (and listening) figures for the news.
 Never mind - at least this election has given us a catchphrase, and it's a corker: 'Hell yes,' said Ed when asked by Paxo if he's tough enough to be PM, 'Hell yes, I'm tough enough.' Labour were soon doling out 'Hell yes' T-shirts and hailing their leader's toughness. I've written before about the Milliband brothers' place in the world of puppet animation - clean-cut David as head of International Rescue, Weird Ed as the face (and body) of Aardman. Now, it seems, Ed is moving on, aligning himself with the macho puppet world of Team America - 'F*ck yeah!' Shame he didn't go the whole hog - that would have livened things up a bit.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Jaunt Notes

Well, I am back from a weekend of jaunting, church-crawling - and, latterly, sheltering from torrential rain - in Derbyshire and Staffordshire, where the highlights were the beautiful little church of Blore, where one chapel is entirely filled with the immensely grand Bassett monument, and the glorious perfection that is Pugin's spired steeple of St Giles, Cheadle (the interior is equally elegant in design but the relentless decoration in oppressive).
 Before that came an afternoon walking, in whipping winds, around Cuckmere Haven in Sussex and up onto the first of the Seven Sisters cliffs, where the inevitable idiot daredevils were sitting with their feet dangling over the friable edge. Then, the following day, it was over the border into Kent for a walk on Romney Marsh. This began at St Mary in the Marsh, where due homage was made at the humble wooden grave marker of E. Nesbit, made and inscribed by her second husband, Thomas 'The Captain' Tucker, a genial old salt with whom she spent the last years of her life.
 From New Romney, we rode the small-scale Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch railway - a splendid, slightly absurd survival from the 1920s which has proved its usefulness and lives on, to the delight of tourists and vintage railway enthusiasts - to Dungeness. This is a windswept coastal outpost that, even on a spring morning with the sun shining, epitomises the word 'bleak' in all its dismal dimensions. A shingly straggle of huddling pseudo-cottages and hutments, interspersed with outcrops of arty gentrification, it has little to commend it but its two rather fine lighthouses. Prospect Cottage, where the late Derek Jarman lived and created an unaccountably famous garden out of flotsam and pebbles, does little to lift the gloom, but happily the place is served by two well windproofed pubs. The New Romney to Dungeness section of the railway was reopened as a single-track shuttle service in 1947 by Laurel and Hardy, no less, and there is no better way to cheer yourself up after a visit to Dungeness than watching this newsreel footage of the event - what pros! Their genius glimmers through even this.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Sargent: Always a Pleasure

And yesterday it was the National Portrait Gallery for the John Singer Sargent exhibition, Portraits of Artists and Friends, which is, unsurprisingly, brilliant. Such dash, such effortless technical mastery, such dazzling brushwork, such living likenesses - what more could you ask? Well, it's hard to say, but as so often with Sargent, after the initial impact, there's a sense of something missing - it's nothing essential but its lack means that enjoying his paintings is not one of the deeper, most satisfying or lasting pleasures that art has to offer. But so what? Pleasure it surely is, an intense and delicious pleasure - and no one could complain that Sargent's best portraits lack psychological penetration (try his Rodin for size). And many of the best are assembled at the NPG, a lot of them gathered in from various American galleries, notably the two astonishing portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson, the double portrait of the Peilleron children (looking as if they're auditioning for The Turn of the Screw), the wonderful Le Verre de Porto (A Dinner Table at Night), the powerful full-length of the actor Edwin Booth (elder brother of John Wilkes Booth), The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati (a plein-air portrait of Wilfrid and Jane de Glehn) and An Artist in His Studio, a quietly dazzling portrait of Ambrogio Raffele at work in a makeshift studio in his hotel room. It is a joy to see all these - and many more - together. It's only a shame that Sargent's most notorious picture - the Portrait of Madame X - didn't make it across the Atlantic. But for sheer painterly pleasure, this exhibition could hardly be topped. Enjoy!
 (And now I'm off jaunting around for a few days, so there might be a blog hiatus.)

Travellers and Coppard

Over on The Dabbler I'm writing about the Travellers' Library series of the 1920s. Some might recall that I subsequently wrote about A.E. Coppard here...

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Salt and Silver

Yesterday I went to see Salt and Silver, an exhibition of early photography (1840-1860) at Tate Britain. Most of the pictures on display are salt prints, the oldest photographs on paper that have survived. They are rare and precious, fascinating in themselves - and often in their subject matter -and many of them are very beautiful. There are four rooms of photographs: one of early, pioneering images, then a room of pictures recording Modern Life, a room of archaeological and historical images titled Epic, and a final room - Presence - of portraits (with a couple of nudes).
 The wonderful thing about salt prints (especially from paper negatives) - the thing that can't be reproduced but has to be seen in the original - is the softness of tone, the richness of texture, the extraordinarily delicate interplay of light and shade (Hill and Adamson's portraits were even likened to Rembrandts). In these early images, light emerges from darkness, and the borderline between the two is soft and porous - rather like the sfumato effect of the Italian painters. The famous image above - William Fox Talbot's The Great Elm at Lacock - is a case in point. In reproduction, it just looks like a rather crude image of a tree against the sky, but the original is a marvel of subtle tonality, especially where the branches end in a haze of twigs against the sky, the one merging into the other. Fox Talbot achieved this effect - whether intentionally or not - by not masking off the sky (as became common practice later, the development of the sky posing problems that could compromise the main image).
 This exhibition is light on the technicalities, with only an outline explanation of the processes involved. The focus, quite rightly, is on the pictures - this is, after all, an art gallery, and many of these photographs, including the documentary ones, were conceived as works of art. Often they echo pictorial modes of the past - most noticeably in the posing of portraits - but even by the 1850s, the art of photography was breaking free from the painted past into a new informality, into exploring the things that only photography could do.
 There are many memorable images here - of the last of Georgian England and the birth of the Victorian age, of survivals from mediaeval and ancient times (the Egyptian photographs of John Beasly Greene and Auguste Salzmann are worth a small exhibition of their own), architectural studies, images from the Crimean and American Civil War, and some startlingly vivid and intimate portraits: a particularly poignant one is of Captain Lord Balgonie, photographed by Roger Fenton at Crimea, shellshocked and already a broken man at 23. A strikingly beautiful one is of the photographer Gustave le Grey standing in elegant profile against a rough-textured sunlit wall - it could almost be a Manet. All these portraits pack an extra punch because these are the first images of 'ordinary' people to survive their subjects' death. In an age when death was likely to be just around the corner (Lord Balgonie was dead at 25, John Beasly Greene at 24), that was quite something.
 If you're interested in seeing Salt and Silver, there's plenty of time - it's on till June. And there are many more images from the exhibition online - though, as I say, this is a case where you really do have to see the real thing.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Them Bones

The extraordinary brouhaha surrounding the reinterment of Richard III's bones in Leicester 'Cathedral'  shows that certain strains in the English character still thrive. We have a native genius for inventing pageantry, along with the rituals - and indeed the history - to support it; and a strong streak of sentimentality animates our enjoyment of a 'good show'. The events in Leicester at times seem weirdly reminiscent of the public mourning for Diana, but emptier and infinitely less understandable. Perhaps the Richard III business is essentially about 'putting Leicester on the map', but its apparent success is surely due to these deeper forces in the English character - and to the enduring place of Shakespeare in the public imagination. All of which is rather heartening, however little any of it has to do with the historical Richard, last of the bloodiest dynasty in England's history. Richard himself, whose crooked bones were found under a municipal car park, would surely be appalled at what is going on - partly because he would have wished to be buried in York, but largely because such scant provision has been made for his immortal soul: no chantry, no priest clearing the immense deficit of masses accrued in all those centuries in his unknown grave... For a clearer-eyed view of the whole thing, let us turn again to Geoffrey Hill -

Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings

For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,   
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,
To sound the constitution of just wars,
Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood.

Relieved of soul, the dropping-back of dust,   
Their usage, pride, admitted within doors;
At home, under caved chantries, set in trust,   
With well-dressed alabaster and proved spurs   
They lie; they lie; secure in the decay
Of blood, blood-marks, crowns hacked and coveted,   
Before the scouring fires of trial-day
Alight on men; before sleeked groin, gored head,   
Budge through the clay and gravel, and the sea   
Across daubed rock evacuates its dead.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

What would Captain Mainwaring say?

This morning I stepped into my local branch of Barclays bank to get some cash, and I am still aghast at what I found there. This branch has three indoor 'hole in the wall' machines, each with a different function, as was hitherto apparent at a glance. Now, however, the notice above each machine carries not an indication of what it does but a name. The machines are now 'Sally', 'Jake' and 'Mike'. Under each notice is a further notice, beginning 'Hello, I'm Sally/Jake/Mike, and here's what I can do for you...' Oddly, these notices didn't even line up with the names above, so that Jake had ended up under Sally, which I'm sure was very nice for him - but, not for the first time, I find myself asking Has the world gone mad? (Yes, I know the answer). More specifically, has the infantilised population really reached such a depth of imbecility that it can only relate to a bank machine if it's given a name and introduces itself? Or is it only the hotshot consultants brought in to make the bank more 'accessible' and 'friendly' who think we're that stupid? I hope so.