Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Pontormo


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

Spangled?

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

Monumental


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.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Another Kind of Library

I'm reading another Elizabeth Jenkins novel, Brightness - of which, no doubt, more in due course. A copy of this elusive item turned up on, I think, eBay at a reasonable price, and when it arrived I was delighted to discover that it bore the green shield of the Boots Booklovers Library (overprinted with a dark cross to identify it as withdrawn from stock).
 I am just old enough to have faint vestigial memories of the days when Boots - and W.H. Smith - ran commercial circulating libraries from many of their high-street premises. The libraries were in decline by then, but in the early years of the 20th century and on through the interwar period, they were a major presence, a huge influence - not necessarily for the better - on the nation's reading habits and on the commercial decision-making of the publishing industry.
 The Boots library had a business model that was bound to appeal to the English middle-class (and would-be middle-class) public. It offered a Class A subscription (relatively expensive and with various extras) and a Class B subscription (relatively inexpensive with no frills), thereby providing each group of subscribers with another group to look down on or look up to - perfect. There was even an On Demand subscription - more expensive then Class A - for the truly aspirational. What's more, Boots provided tasteful, even elegant surroundings for its library users, lending tone to what might otherwise have been a vulgar pharmaceutical bazaar.
 It was the perfect package, but it was doomed to fail, along with the other commercial circulating libraries, as public lending libraries took off in the postwar period and became acceptable even to the middle classes. The last Boots Booklovers Library closed in 1966 - just three years after Brightness was published.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

He takes the bins out

By chance (presumably), the BBC's bizarre interview with Arthur Askey lookalike Philip May, the UK's First Gentleman, took place on the eve of the great Denis Thatcher's birthday (he'd have been 102 today).
 Denis, the only other man ever to have found himself in the unfortunate position of being married to the PM, gave but one public interview, and that long after the fall of Mrs T. It was released after his death as a DVD, Married to Maggie - available on Amazon and even eBay, if you're interested (unlikely, I know).
 How often will we hear from Mr May over the coming years, I wonder? I'd hate to think it's now become part of the job. Good to know he takes the bins out, though.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Plus Ca Change

Alors, c'est fait. Macron, inevitably, won, and France, we can be sure, will continue to play a leading role in the ongoing suicide of Western Europe. As I always say, never underestimate the delusional folly of the French, at least in political matters. A nation dazzled by Ideas is rarely going to produce good governance.
 Still, it could be worse. On this date in 1794, Antoine Lavoisier, the 'father of modern chemistry', the man who named both oxygen and hydrogen, was tried, convicted as a traitor and guillotined. Among the crimes he was charged with was adulterating the nation's tobacco with water.
 A year and a half after his death, he was exonerated and his belongings were delivered to his widow with a curt note. A century later, a statue was erected in Paris in his memory, but it turned out that, to save effort, the sculptor had welded a spare head he had lying around - that of the Marquis de Condorcet - onto the body of his Lavoisier. The statue was melted down during the Second World War and has not been replaced.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Chez Fothergill

To the agreeable Oxfordshire town of Thame on Friday evening, for a family occasion the next day. We stayed in the Spreadeagle, on the High Street, a hotel famous for having been run in the Twenties by the 'legendary' John Fothergill, who wrote a bestselling book, An Innkeeper's Diary, about the experience. A minor literary and artistic figure who liked to mingle with artists and writers, Fothergill was a friend and correspondent of Evelyn Waugh, who got to know Fothergill's Spreadeagle in his Oxford days. But he owed his fame - or notoriety - largely to the firm line he took with guests he did not consider worthy of his hotel, usually on grounds of bad manners.
 Like many a publican before and since, he took particular exception to visitors who made use of his sanitary facilities without bothering to buy a drink. Such offenders would be unlikely to make the same mistake twice. Fothergill was not really in the great British tradition of hoteliers and restaurateurs who are clearly in the wrong line of work and who take out their unhappiness on their unfortunate clientele. He was undoubtedly a snob, but not a boor; he was trying to ensure that his guests proved worthy of his hospitality and the very fine surroundings that he had created at the Spreadeagle. For those he approved of, he created a most agreeable kind of private club, over which he presided with charm, wit and generosity. At a time when English hotels were dreary places offering bad food and wine in a dismal environment, Fothergill created something more like a pleasant, artistically decorated country house, with good food and wine. He didn't want 'riffraff' (Basil Fawlty's term - 'vulgarians, bounders and coxcombs' Fothergill would have called them) spoiling the atmosphere of his inn.
  The Spreadeagle gets a mention in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, when Anthony Blanche takes Charles Ryder to dinner:
'We are going to Thame,' he said. 'There's a delightful hotel there, which luckily doesn't appeal to the Bullingdon [the notorious Oxford drinking club].'
  The Spreadeagle's glory days are long behind it, but it's a pleasant enough hotel. And when I stepped out to take a turn before dinner, I looked up and found the sky alive with swifts - my first of the year! Circling, swooping, chasing and screaming, they were in high spirits and losing no time in getting their short season under way.
 Back home, only a few wary pioneers have so far braved the cold and cloud, but at least they are here and, despite appearances, the summer has begun.



Thursday, 4 May 2017

Trout Again: The Carshalton Dodge

An article titled 'The Hampshire Fly Fisher' in the Dcember 17th, 1853, issue of The Field contains this startling sentence [my italics]:
'On the other hand, as far as fly fishing is concerned, fishing upstream, unless you are trying the Carshalton dodge and fishing with a dry fly, is very awkward.'
 As regular readers will know, I have lived in the suburban demiparadise of Carshalton for the best part of sixty years, man and boy - but that is the first I've ever heard of 'the Carshalton dodge'. It dates back to the days when Carshalton's river, the Wandle, was famous in angling circles as a crystal-clear chalk stream rich in trout. The implication seems to be that the 'dodge' of luring the wary trout with a dry fly delicately skimming the surface of the water originated in Carshalton, which can thereby claim an honoured place in the history of fly fishing.
 There were even two flies named for the demiparadise - the Carshalton Cocktail and the Carshalton Dun. If the regeneration of the Wandle continues on its present hopeful course, the Carshalton dodgers might yet be back in business, playing their wily Cocktails and Duns over the sparkling, trout-rich waters.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

'The secret, bestial peace!'

The other night I caught a programme on BBC4 called Amsterdam: An Art Lover's Guide - rather good it was, and very watchable. At one point, the presenter Alastair Sooke, touring the Rijksmuseum, briefly admired the Vermeers, then noted that they shared the room with works by another Dutch painter, one who, he seemed to suggest, was seriously underrated outside his native Holland. This was Jan Steen, painter of innumerable genre scenes, many of them portraying drunkenness and cheerful depravity in taverns. A Man Blowing Smoke at a Drunken Woman - the National Gallery's one Steen - is typical, though Steen's canvases tend to be more densely populated with drunks and revellers.
 The Dutch affection for Jan Steen's works is probably, well, a Dutch thing, and his loud, rambunctious works certainly have almost nothing in common with Vermeer's enigmatic masterpieces. It was surely the likes of Jan Steen that Larkin had in mind when he wrote his 1970 sonnet The Card Players, a crudely comic evocation of the 17th-century Dutch tavern world, and a kind of celebration of shameless maleness and hog-whimpering drunkenness...

Jan van Hogspuew staggers to the door
And pisses at the dark. Outside, the rain
Courses in cart-ruts down the deep mud lane.
Inside, Dirk Dogstoerd pours himself some more,
And holds a cinder to his clay with tongs,
Belching out smoke. Old Prijck snores with the gale,
His skull face firelit; someone behind drinks ale,
And opens mussels, and croaks scraps of songs
Towards the ham-hung rafters about love.
Dirk deals the cards. Wet century-wide trees
Clash in surrounding starlessness above
This lamplit cave, where Jan turns back and farts,
Gobs at the grate, and hits the queen of hearts.

Rain, wind and fire! The secret, bestial peace! 

Monday, 1 May 2017

Writer's Tears


Here it is, the perfect gift for the writer in your life - and a very welcome present to me from my beloved daughter, who, sadly, is flying back to the Antipodes tomorrow.

Talking of daughters, and writers - and tears - here's Richard Wilbur:

The Writer

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.