Friday 31 October 2014


Well, I made it out of the building, all to briefly, to enjoy this glorious, summer-warm sunshine - the last of the year, we are assured. November tomorrow and the thermometer will fall.
 In Holland Park the trees were in their autumn beauty, and there, spreading its wings on a sun-splashed hazel leaf, was one faded, autumnal Speckled Wood. If this proves to be my last butterfly of the year, the symmetry is near perfect; it was no more than a couple of paces from where I saw this year's first - a Comma.
 In the course of my brief wanderings I was also divebombed several times by disoriented ladybirds, woken from early hibernation - the big ones, Harlequin ladybirds, they're everywhere.
 And I developed a minor nosebleed.
 It was soon gone.


I see that a mighty educational research project has, after much labour, come to the startling conclusion that overpraising poor work is not a terribly good idea. Still more shockingly, it concludes that the two key factors in improving results are the quality of the teaching and the teachers' subject knowledge - who'd have guessed? (The National Union of Teachers, needless to say, is having none of it.)
 When I look back to my own schooling, in what was by the standards of the time a fairly run-of-the-mill state grammar school, I am gratefully amazed at the quality of teaching and the subject knowledge of many of the teachers. They were certainly of a calibre that you would be hard pressed to find anywhere in the state sector these days. Indeed, the rot set in (even in this school, which escaped being comprehensivised) when the generation that taught me retired. My old friend, mentor and English teacher - let us call him K - handed over his department in the mid-70s to a younger man who was a perfectly capable and effective teacher, but, to K's bemusement, had no apparent interest in or enjoyment of  his subject, knew no more of it than he needed to, and read little beyond the syllabus. By contrast K lived and breathed English (and French and Italian) literature; he had more close, detailed knowledge of Shakespeare than anyone I ever knew (including at university) - likewise Milton, and Dante, and, above all, Keats, whose great odes and much else he knew by heart.  As today is John Keats's birthday (1795) - and as it's the kind of glorious sunny, unseasonably warm day when here in the city I feel unusually pent, let's have this fine sonnet:

To one who has been long in city pent,
         'Tis very sweet to look into the fair
         And open face of heaven,—to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
Who is more happy, when, with heart's content,
         Fatigued he sinks into some pleasant lair
         Of wavy grass, and reads a debonair
And gentle tale of love and languishment?
Returning home at evening, with an ear
         Catching the notes of Philomel,—an eye
Watching the sailing cloudlet's bright career,
         He mourns that day so soon has glided by:
E'en like the passage of an angel's tear
         That falls through the clear ether silently.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Boswell - What If...?

Among my current bedtime reading is another damn'd thick square book by the notoriously readable Bill Bryson. At Home is a history of the development over the years of the home and all the comforts we now take for granted. Built around a room-by-room tour of the Norfolk rectory that is now Bryson's home, the book soon develops into a big, baggy - and, dammit, immensely readable - history of, well, nearly everything (a subject he's already covered in another fat book). Bryson is a virtuoso of research - or rather of distilling vast quantities of material into fascinating titbits - and he's happy to roam at large in his subject, wandering off into digressions and footnotes, and as a result delivering far more than his subject might promise. For example, last night, while reading about the agricultural revolution of the 18th century (this in the chapter devoted to The Drawing Room), I learnt from a footnote that the Ayrshire breed of cattle - a handsome, good-natured and bountiful breed - was developed by Bruce Campbell, a second cousin of James  Boswell. Campbell was put in charge of the estate when Boswell turned down the life of a Scottish country gent in favour of something a deal more raffish and metropolitan. Just think - if Boswell had decided to take over the estate, we would most likely not have Ayrshire cattle, and we could certainly not have Samuel Johnson - Johnson the man, that is, as large as life and larger: Boswell's Johnson.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

A Hole in the Floor

It's high time we had a poem here - and this one is oddly apposite, as our house is currently in the grip of two simultaneous flooring crises, with floorboards up and strange, alarming sights on view. Of course Richard Wilbur's poem is not about flooring. The subject is the hole, the hidden darkness and mystery - the 'buried strangeness' - that sustain the life we think we're living, here in the light. The poem has a characteristically controlled and orderly surface, but there's a strong undertow, something threatening to break through. Looking into a hole is not far from staring into the abyss. 'For God's sake, what am I after?'
The poem is dedicated to Rene Magritte.

A Hole in the Floor

The carpenter's made a hole
In the parlor floor, and I'm standing
Staring down into it now
At four o'clock in the evening,
As Schliemann stood when his shovel
Knocked on the crowns of Troy.

A clean-cut sawdust sparkles
On the grey, shaggy laths,
And here is a cluster of shavings
From the time when the floor was laid.
They are silvery-gold, the color
Of Hesperian apple-parings.

Kneeling, I look in under
Where the joists go into hiding.
A pure street, faintly littered
With bits and strokes of light,
Enters the long darkness
Where its parallels will meet.

The radiator-pipe
Rises in middle distance
Like a shuttered kiosk, standing
Where the only news is night.
Here it's not painted green,
As it is in the visible world.

For God's sake, what am I after?
Some treasure, or tiny garden?
Or that untrodden place,
The house's very soul,
Where time has stored our footbeats
And the long skein of our voices?

Not these, but the buried strangeness
Which nourishes the known:
That spring from which the floor-lamp
Drinks now a wilder bloom,
Inflaming the damask love-seat
And the whole dangerous room.

Monday 27 October 2014

Top Trees

Good to see the shortlist for Tree of the Year has been published. I rather fancy Old Knobbley, a tree with a substantial fanbase and its own website -  its most recent offspring, Young Knobbley, also has an online presence.
 It's a bit of a shame - though unsurprising - that oaks so dominate the shortlist. Me, I'd nominate the mighty (and immensely elegant) London Plane beside the Old Rectory in Carshalton...

Rebranding Brand

On the Today programme this morning, Tom Sutcliff came on to tell us who his guests were for Start the Week. One of them, he announced, was 'comedian Russell Brand'. 'Is he a comedian now?' mused Jon Humphrys, a tad sardonically. 'Shouldn't we call him a thinker?'
 No, Jon. Now that Brand has set up as a thinker, the label 'comedian' fits him better than it ever did when he was at large in the world of comedy. As a thinker, indeed, he makes a first-rate comedian. The trouble - and the mystery - is that he gets taken seriously.

Friday 24 October 2014


I've just noticed that a piece of mine on Marianne North is over on the new-look soaraway Dabbler... 

Thursday 23 October 2014


Quotations have their uses. Without them, according to Wodehouse, any conversation between chaps would be nothing but an endless succession of 'What ho's. Oddly, these days, they are increasingly becoming an element of interior design, gracing the walls of pubs and restaurants. Pubs, that is, of the kind that feature living-room furniture and by-the-yard books, where a few quirky, perhaps 'thought-provoking' quotations on the wall represent another short cut to 'character' and 'charm', though their sourcing probably owes less to wide reading than to the quote troves of the internet.
 Now, it seems, it's spreading. Yesterday I noticed a florist's stall whose canopy was embellished with aptly floral quotations. One of them was this: 'To be overcome by the fragrance of flowers is a delectable form of defeat' - Beverley Nichols. The fey quotation is all too characteristic of Nichols in whimsical mood.
 I first came across the curious figure of Beverley Nichols in the course of my assiduous childhood reading of my mother's Woman's Own magazine. By this point in his career, Nichols was reduced to writing soppy stuff about, mostly, cats (there was even a Beverley Nichols Cat Calendar) - a sad plight for one whose literary career had begun with such golden promise. He published his first novel, Prelude, while still at Oxford (editor of Isis, president of the Union, etc), with two more, Patchwork and Self, swiftly following and establishing him as the bright rising star of the literary scene.
 A terrific charmer and networker, Nichols soon knew everybody, from the highest of high society to the wider world of literature and showbusiness, and was for years extravagantly praised by friends and critics alike (they were often one and the same). Well-paid journalism, successful stage plays and books galore followed (he totted up 60 and more in his writing career), and Nichols scored another massive success with Down the Garden Path (illustrated by his friend Rex Whistler) and its various sequels. However, after the war, he seems to have somehow run out of steam and/or gone out of fashion, and so began the descent to winsome jottings in women's magazines - though the books kept on coming, and he achieved one final blaze of glory (of a kind) in 1972 with Father Figure. In this startling book, he described how he killed his alcoholic and abusive father. Whimsical it wasn't.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

A Nasty Piece of Work

Born on this day in 1870 was that singularly nasty piece of work, Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde's 'Bosie'. His appalling treatment of Wilde, both during and after their relationship, is notorious, and Wilde's tolerance of it must be put down, I suppose, to an extreme and tragic case of blind love or  amour fou. The literary landscape and the whole cultural life of England might have been very different had Oscar never met Bosie, had the scandal and the trial never happened...
 Douglas's excesses after the Wilde years (when he was happy to denounce Oscar as 'the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe during the last 350 years') are perhaps less well known. One astonishing example came in the course of his editorship of a magazine called Plain English, devoted largely to vicious anti-Jewish propaganda (blood libel, Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, etc). In its pages he accused Winston Churchill of falsely reporting that the British fleet had been defeated at Jutland. His motive, Douglas alleged, was to bring about a crash in British securities, enabling a cabal of Jewish financiers to buy them up cheaply. Churchill's reward was to be a houseful of furniture, to the value of £40,000. Happily, Lord Alfred was found guilty of libel on this occasion and sentenced to six months in prison. While there, he wrote his poetic testament, In Excelsis (cp De Profundis), but  was obliged to leave it behind when he was released. He claimed afterwards that his health had been ruined for life by sleeping on a prison bed without a mattress.
 When Douglas eventually died, in 1945 in Hove, his funeral was attended by only two people - one of whom, according to his son, was the actor Donald Sinden, who himself died last month. He was probably the last living link with the egregious Lord Alfred.

Monday 20 October 2014


As the Dylan Thomas centenary year grinds on, it's good to see that some of his most characteristic works of the imagination - the bouncing cheques that littered his path through life - have come up for auction. If ever a cheque was destined to be returned by the bank, it was one signed 'Dylan Thomas'. A fine piece of Welsh canniness on the part of the landlord to keep these specimens back, rather than throw them away. He should have got him to sign a few beermats as well - or maybe he did...

Sunday 19 October 2014

'Mischievous commonplaces'

'There is already an abundance, not to say superabundance of writers who are able to express in an effective manner the mischievous commonplaces which they have to say.'
That's John Stuart Mill, rebuffing a request for support from the gloriously named Neophyte Writers' Society [as quoted in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters]. And if he was right then, he'd be even righter now when, in an age of mass media and open-access electronic media, we are afloat on an ever widening sea of inane verbiage and 'mischievous commonplaces'. In any age, only a tiny - and ever dwindling - portion of what is being written is far above the level of tosh, and virtually all, even of the most respectable and articulate of it, will be deservedly forgotten within a short space of time.
 Anyone who has spent much time in a large library with historic holding will have come to this realisation, as they discover shelf after shelf, stack after stack of works published by respectable houses, doubtless in a hopeful, even triumphant spirit, only to fall into more or less instant oblivion, to survive only in a few obscure warehouses of the past, unread and meaningless to all but the occasional scholarly specialist. And these are the relatively spare and worthy relics of the age of print. What an infinitely vaster field of dust and delusion is represented by the exponentially growing archive of the electronic age...
 Yes, there is no virtue - and perhaps much mischief - in encouraging people to write. The likelihood is that the few worthwhile writers will persevere regardless; we are better off without the rest. In particular, those who believe themselves to be writing poetry should be firmly disabused, as is regularly proved on various Radio 4 'poetry' programmes week after week.
 Meanwhile, of course, I carry on writing.

Friday 17 October 2014

Picking Up Prints

I just picked up some prints from the chemist's - and realised, as I did so, how long it's been since I felt the particular excitement of handling a package of photographs I'd taken but hadn't seen. I guess it's one of those once familiar experiences that is dying out fast. In my case it only happened because we found ourselves in Nice without a camera or a decent mobile phone between us. When I spotted a single disposable camera - probably the only one in town (they're dying out too) - at the till of a minimarket  I snapped it up, and set about using it to create some kind of record of the short holiday.
 I handed the camera in at Boot's two days ago and, as it was Boot's, I knew that picking up the prints was unlikely to be straightforward. For many years this chain chemist seems to have operated a strategy of selecting counter staff for their skills in conversing among themselves, getting hopelessly confused, walking around looking puzzled and wandering off on mysterious errands, rather than for any till-related abilities.
 Two staff were on the photographic desk, each of them, predictably enough, caught up in some fantastically complex customer problem that looked likely to last for much of the afternoon. One of them, however, soon became free - well, freeish; she couldn't actually attend to me until she'd been given a number and punched it in to the till. This task having twice defeated her, her colleague came to her aid, the number was duly punched, and I handed in my collection slip, which was promptly scanned with a bar-code reader. After that, the assistant seemed quite at a loss and stared uncomprehendingly at the slip for some while before turning to the alphabetically arranged ranks of prints behind her. She began in the Ts - which, as my surname begins with an A, didn't seem such a great idea. I directed her attention towards the As, and, when I had explained the situation, she delved among them - with (you're probably ahead of me here) no success.
 Her colleague again came to her aid: the prints, she said, might be in the basket. The basket was in a storeroom behind the scenes, to which access could only be gained by punching a numerical code into a keypad. After several attempts at this, the assistant called for her colleague, who once again went to her aid. 'She's got a problem with numbers, that one,' she sighed good-humouredly. Both of them then disappeared into the storeroom for some while. Much to my surprise, when at length they emerged they had found my prints!
 As always, actually opening the exciting package and seeing the prints was a disappointment. Disposable cameras do have their limitations; indeed, they have little else.  

Thursday 16 October 2014


It's time for a picture - and this one is by way of marking the birthday of the great Edward Ardizzone (born 1900, in Tonkin of all places, in what was then French Indo-China). Ever since I first came across his illustrations in childhood, I've loved Ardizzone's delicate, instantly recognisable style - a style that belongs as much to the 18th century (particularly Rowlandson) as to the 20th. Whatever his subject - and he was a prolific war artist, at home and abroad - there is a sense of good cheer and enjoyment of the world behind almost everything Ardizzone drew. He was a lover of rounded forms and rounded women, and a devotee of that great institution, the English public house. Some of his best informal work was done in the pubs of  Maida Vale, works full of keen enjoyment for every aspect of pub life (he was the perfect choice of illustrator for Maurice Gorham's The Local). The image above shows Home Guards at the Local - it's one of many Ardizzones at the Imperial War Museum. And isn't that Private Frazer ('We're all doomed!') leaning on the bar?

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Why Are We Here?

If (and it's a big if) I've learnt one thing in 40 years of marriage, it is that Mrs N must have her science documentaries, and while she watches them I must maintain silence and try to keep the incredulous snorts and head-shaking to a minimum (not easy). Last night it was ever-smiling, ever-awestruck moptop physicist Prof Brian Cox and his Human Universe, this week posing the question Why Are We Here? Quite rightly, Cox did not address this question (which is a religious/philosophical one if it's anything) but set about answering another one: How Come We Got Here? What chains of causality culminated in Us, here and now? 'The life of the Universe,' he declared at one point, 'is just like a game of cricket.'  I see - that would explain a lot...
 Soon he was edging back to his favourite subject, the one that seems to strike most awe into him, however many times he returns to it: those few basic Laws of physics and those Numbers (neither of which exist in themselves) that explain Everything.
 How did it all begin? Cox favours the theory of Inflation - 'eternal' Inflation, no less (eternal?) - which, as he explained it, seems to rely on the presence of some form of energy to set it in motion, i.e. yet again the Something from Nothing conundrum is sidestepped (energy is surely Something, and was Before). Inflation  necessarily implies the creation of a multitude ('infinite' no doubt) of Multiverses, each slightly different. We're the lucky ones - the Human Universe is the 'winning ticket' in the Multiverse lottery. It is also 'inevitable'. 'You are,' concludes Cox, 'because you have to be.' Or in other words (to the tune of Auld Lang Syne) 'We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here. We're here because.... etc, etc.'

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Emerson Lives?

With the winner of the Booker Prize due to be announced this evening, Radio 4 ran a little piece this morning in which each of the shortlisted authors spoke of their literary inspirations. It was all pretty routine stuff - except when it came to Joshua Ferris, author of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour ('an investigation into doubt, belief and the importance of flossing'). His inspiration? Ralph Waldo Emerson, no less. He quoted some lofty utterance of the great man that had apparently convinced him of his literary vocation.
 I must say, of all the names I expected to hear in this context, R.W. Emerson was about the most unlikely. Isn't this about on a par with an English writer naming Herbert Spencer as his inspiration? Or is Emerson still a living presence in American literary culture?

Technical note

In view of recent events at The Dabbler - now relaunched in all its glory and more - I've reinstated word recognition on Nigeness. Hope it's not inconvenient. My stats are also suspiciously high, and I don't think it's all human activity...

Monday 13 October 2014

'still has the power to irritate'

I'm finally reading a book that's been in my sights for quite a while - John Gross's The Rise and Fall of the English Man of Letters: Aspects of English Literary Life Since 1800 (1969 - mine's a browning Pelican edition from the 70s) - and I'm loving it. Tracing his subject from the rise of the reviewers (a pretty terrible bunch) early in the 19th century to the ascent of Carlyle, John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold and on to the Higher Journalism of the Victorian era... Actually, that's as far as I've got at this point, but I can report that I haven't enjoyed a work of literary criticism so much since I reread Keats and Embarrassment.
 Gross is immensely readable, quietly humorous, never dull or pompous, and with a shrewd, sharp but always humane and balanced judgment. He is brilliant on Carlyle, giving full weight to his virtues as well as his all too evident flaws and insisting (probably too late) that the latter should not be allowed to eclipse the former. And here he is on George Henry Lewes, whose status as Literary Footnote is secured by his relationship with George Eliot (of whose critical essays in Lewes's Westminster Review, Gross writes 'Aspiring wherever possible to praise rather than condemn, she none the less manages to temper her mercy with a disconcerting amount of justice'). But Lewes had many more strings to his bow - from theatre critic and writer of potboiling farces to essayist and reviewer, translator, biographer of Goethe, writer of many volumes of popular science, and serial dabbler in utopian philosophies:
 'If a longing for intellectual certainty predisposed him towards the secular messiahs and utopian conventicles thrown up by the age, his native wit usually saved him from toppling over into complete extravagance. On the other hand, there was often the strong odour of a crank's kitchen about the circle in which he moved.' Of Lewes's essay on Dickens (in which 'the "advanced" critic plods along behind the unintellectual author'), Gross says that it 'still has the power to irritate'. Which is something...
 Gross clearly loves his subject, and his book is in part a celebration of how the world of letters used to be in a lost age when a living common culture (literary, artistic, scientific, philosophical, political) seemed at least a possible reality - and before English Literature was packed off to the universities as an increasingly arid and irrelevant 'discipline', of interest to none but specialists.

Sunday 12 October 2014

Nice PS

One of the most surprising things about Nice was that the city of Matisse and Dufy seems now to be entirely devoted to Bad Art, both upmarket and down - I haven't seen so much hideous tat (expensive as well as cheap) since my last stay in Honfleur. There are the museums and galleries of course - including, out of town, the Matisse Museum - but outside their walls, virtually no trace of the two artists. No reproductions or posters to be seen, not so much as a postcard even. In the light of the massive popularity of the cut-outs, you'd have thought that Nice would be branding itself as a themed city, Matisseville-sur-Mer - but no, far from it. And as for the city's (recent) Public Art, it could scarcely be worse - mostly a matter of gigantic steel girders incongruously placed, as if Nice were some decayed industrial town rather than the jewel of the Cote d'Azur. All very odd.


In the event, I spent less time on the Promenade des Anglais - magnificent though it is, the ceaseless adjacent motor traffic is irksome - than up above the Old Town on the peaceful Colline du Chateau, where every prospect - of bay, town, port and inland hills - pleases. Densely wooded with pines, cypress, holm oak, palms and Arbutus, this magnificent outcrop was in the 19th century made into one of those brilliantly designed semi-wild parks at which the French excel (it's much like the one in Nimes, though on a grander scale). They even diverted water from a nearby canal to create a spectacular waterfall (above).
 Some 400 steps (I lost count) lead from the town to the plateau that is the site of the long-gone castle (thoroughly destroyed by Louis XIV) - or, for the daunted, there's an Ascenseur almost to the summit. It's a free and ticketless service, but, in the approved French manner, still employs two people to sit behind glass in a kiosk and look forbidding. Those who make the climb on foot are rewarded with ever wider, more dramatic views of sea, sky and land at every vantage point on the way up (and, at the summit, a couple of restorative cafes and a souvenir shop). Winding paths and flights of stairs offer an endless variety of ways down and around - and an equally inexhaustible range of breathtaking views.
 In warm October sun, all of this - with the song of birds, the scents and the abundance of flowering Oleander, Morning Glory, Bougainvillea, Plumbago, Solanum and Hibiscus - was a daily feast for the senses and the soul. And there were butterflies! Red Admirals everywhere, gliding down from the trees to bask on sun-splashed paths, Speckled Woods almost as abundant (home away from home!), tiny blues and arguses darting busily about among the lower-growing flowers with larger Long-Tailed Blues. In town, just outside the hotel, I spotted a splendid Brimstone-like Cleopatra (Citron de Provence, the French call it), and, back on the castle hill, a pair of Scarce Swallowtails enjoying a lively aerial chase. All this and swifts too - swifts, martins and swallows, still flying. This was a glorious extension to summer's lease.
 And, reader, I swam - in the sea. It was wonderful.

Monday 6 October 2014


Tomorrow I am off to Nice with Mrs N for a few days. You may picture me, if you will, sauntering along the Promenade des Anglais (another gift of the English to the French, like the railway to Dieppe), admiring the encircling azure of the Baie des Anges while evading approaching skateboarders and in-line skaters (whatever they are). A bientot!

Sunday 5 October 2014

Summer's End

The summer that came back to life as August became September and lasted, warm and dry, right through that month and into October, finally became autumn this weekend. On Friday I was down in Hampshire, doing some convivial church crawling, and the sky was clear blue, the sun shone all day, almost as hot as high summer, and late butterflies flew - Red Admirals and Speckled Woods galore, with the odd Peacock and Tortoiseshell. The next morning cloud and rain swept in, with startlingly chilly air, and suddenly it was autumn; the glorious late summer was over.
  What a summer it was too - the second properly warm, dry summer in a row, this time following a dismally wet winter and early spring. August was a sad disappointment, but high summer was quite magnificent, with day after day of blazing sun. And butterflies - yes, it was another great butterfly year, almost as good as 2013. For me, it began well, in March (a Comma in Holland Park on the 7th, then Brimstones, Peacocks - a brilliant year for them - Speckled Woods and Whites large and small). One May afternoon gifted me my first Grizzled Skippers in years, and splendid Adonis Blues (more at the far end of the summer). I had a happy reunion with the Small Blue colony in Dieppe, where I also saw my only Clouded Yellow of the year - and later, back in my usual haunts, I had the wonderful surprise of a Purple Emperor, the second of my life.
 Good year though it was, I missed out on some butterflies I might have hoped to see - no Hairstreaks at all - and saw disappointingly few of some (Marbled White, Small Copper). But it was a wonderful year for Peacocks and Red Admirals, Commas, Tortoiseshells and those beautiful, increasingly ubiquitous Speckled Woods - what more could you ask in the way of everyday abundant beauty?

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Forgotten Faces

Who is the dandiacal figure above? It's Somerset Maugham, as painted by Gerald Kelly in a portrait called The Jester. The picture is one of the most striking in an interesting little exhibition at Tate Britain - Forgotten Faces - that I've just been to see. Its subject is paintings that were famous in their time, major attractions at the Tate in the first decades of the last century, and are now quite forgotten, though the exhibition is almost as much about artists whose sky-high reputations nosedived after their deaths - Gerald Kelly, PRA, a huge figure in his day, being a case in point.
  Star of the show is Diana of the Uplands, a big open-air portrait of his wife in a Diana-like pose, with hounds, by Charles Wellington Furse. Like many of the portraits here, it's executed with a freedom and dash that owe much to John Singer Sargent and to the revival of interest in Reynolds and 18th-century portraiture. A lively and striking picture - 'full of space and sky and instinct with vitality' as Chesterton described it - Diana of The Uplands was more popular in its day than Millais's Ophelia, and it's not hard to see why.
 Some of the other once-popular pictures on display seem to deserve their eclipse (notably Ralph Peacock's oddly airless portraits) - but there are gems as well. Charles Shannon's The Lady with the Amethyst is (fittingly) a gem, painted in the old Venetian way in layered glazes. John Lavery's La Mort du Cygne - the largest picture in the exhibition - is a bit of a stunner too, an image of Pavlova (though posed by the artist's wife) as the Dying Swan, near the foot of a boldly composed, near-monochrome image dominated by the heavy curtain and the stage.
 For me, however, it was the great Dieppe-based painter Jacques-Emile Blanche who stole the show. His 1906 portrait of Thomas Hardy - dashed off in an hour and a half - is a startlingly vivid image of the ageing author, haunted, buffeted, resigned. Blanche left it just as it was for fear of losing the 'revealing likeness', which Hardy himself described as 'striking'. And there's another Blanche portrait - of Charles Conder, elegantly posed in profile against a wall of Whistlerian yellow. Blanche described Conder as 'a rootless Australian nightbird' who went 'from a state of state of intoxication to a sort of lucid daze'. He lived largely on alcohol and cigarettes, died young and is all but forgotten (but not by Barry Humphries, an avid Conder collector).
 Forgotten Faces is on for another week or so - well worth a look if you're in the area. It's good to see the Tate using its holdings for this kind of exhibition, exploring the history of changing taste and fashion in art - and putting on display some fine forgotten works that deserve to be seen again.