Tuesday 28 February 2017

A Stunner in Room One

Talking of the National Gallery, one of the things I most like about that great institution is Room 1, the small room devoted to exhibitions consisting of a single painting (or sometimes a few more). It's the antithesis of the all-conquering blockbuster, offering the welcome chance to look properly, at length and with due concentration, at a painting.
  The present occupant of Room 1 is an absolute stunner. That's it above, though the reproduction gives no idea of its sheer scale (it's huge) or the brightness of its colours. It's The Repentant Magdalene by Guido Cagnacci, a northern Italian Baroque painter whose works were all but forgotten until the Sixties, and who is wholly unrepresented in UK public collections.
 Judging by this powerful masterpiece, Cagnacci is clearly a painter of rare gifts and equally rare inventiveness. Everything about this repentant Magdalene is quite unique - from the dramatic composition, with the Magdalene prostrated in the foreground and the dramatic expulsion of Vice by Virtue dominating the central space, to the palatial setting, the luxurious discarded finery, and the extraordinary grouping of the Magdalene and her virtuous sister at floor level.
  The standard repentant Magdalene is a figure of voluptuous, titillating beauty who seems unaware of her bared breasts as she turns her tear-filled eyes heavenward and clasps her hands in new-found piety. Cagnacci's Magdalene, by contrast, turns her face towards her sister, who is pointing the way to virtue - but the Magdalene's face is in shadow and looks uncertain, thoughtful, conflicted. There is not an ounce of sentimentality here.
  There is, however, all the sensuousness you'd expect of this subject - and then some. Cagnacci's handling of light falling on tender female flesh is absolutely masterly. Indeed it's his forte - half-length female nudes were his speciality, and he made a good living from private commissions. These might take their ostensible subjects from mythology, history or the Bible, but their intent and their appeal were clearly erotic.
  In The Repentant Magdalene, Cagnacci shows off his sensuous skills not only on the barely-draped body of the Magdalene but on the exposed flesh of the androgynous angel representing Virtue. And every inch of flesh gets the full, loving treatment - even the feet, which some said Cagnacci couldn't paint, such was his devotion to the half-length nude. He could.
 The Repentant Magdalene has been lent to the National by the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, and will be on show until May. Don't miss it - it's a revelation.

Floral Tour

Over on the flowerful blog of Freddie's Flowers, I take a floral tour of the National Gallery...

Monday 27 February 2017

Loitering with Intent

Wandering into a local charity shop the other day, I couldn't help but notice a first edition of Muriel Spark's Loitering with Intent, in its original, rather loud dust-wrapper. It was keenly priced (£4.99) and I hadn't read it - though I'd read and enjoyed (and even reviewed, for the late lamented Listener) its literary near relation from the Eighties, A Far Cry from Kensington. So I bought Loitering with Intent, and I've read it, and I enjoyed every moment - indeed, this might even be my favourite Muriel Spark.
  Like A Far Cry from Kensington, it's a return visit to Spark's life as a struggling young would-be poet and novelist in Kensington - then a less than respectable part of London - 'in the middle of the twentieth century,' as she puts it. The story is briskly told, with never a wasted word - or emotion; the narrator has all the cool, sharp-witted detachment we expect of a Spark heroine. What unfolds is an intriguing, beautifully engineered tale, in which the narrator, Fleur Talbot, takes a job with one Sir Quentin Oliver, an almighty snob who is also, Fleur gradually realises, probably mad and almost certainly bad. He runs an outfit called the Autobiographical Association, whose members - a bunch of dim and variously needy minor eminences - he encourages to write their memoirs with 'absolute frankness'. Fleur's job, such as it is, is to knock these pathetic writings into some kind of shape.
  Fleur has been writing her first novel, Warrender Chase, and she is increasingly disturbed to find that events from her novel are playing themselves out in the eccentric world of the Autobiographical Association. And Warrender Chase is not the only book feeding into the action of Loitering with Intent: Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Cellini's Autobiography are permanent presences, and also in the picture are Fleur's new novel, All Souls' Day, and the one she plans to follow it with, The English Rose (a key phrase in Loitering with Intent). But this is most definitely not a dreary exercise in meta-fiction - in fact it's a notably jolly piece of work, with elements of farce and a whiff of Ealing comedy about it (quite fitting for the period). There's a sinister edge to it (as in many Ealing comedies), but it's most definitely a comedy, and a notably inventive, ingenious and entertaining one that kept me eagerly turning the pages - and there are only 220 of them (those were the days!). Better shaped and more ambitious than A Far Cry from Kensington, it's classic Spark. If you have a taste for her (and I know many don't) and haven't read this one - do seek it out.

Saturday 25 February 2017

From Essex to Edward Thomas's Field

I spent yesterday walking in eastern Essex, around Rochford - not quite Essex badlands but with some of the salient features: straggling bungaloid growth, big brash houses behind pseudeo-baronial gates and railings, overextended roadhouse pubs with huge car parks, the odd breaker's yard, a brackish creek with boats rotting away at the moorings... However, the area also has a curious charm - a bleak kind of charm perhaps, but charm nonetheless. Wide views and tall skies, vast fields of turned clay, beds of wind-blown rushes, flocks of swans grazing, buzzards mewing, a scattering of pleasant old buildings - Georgian brick houses, clapboard cottages - surviving among the later excrescences. And there were several good-looking, homely churches of stone and brick on our route - the grandest and most handsome of them St Andrew, Rochford, pictured above.
  En route to the start of the walk, we breakfasted at an improbably located cafe in a small off-road industrial estate. The place was called Childerditch - a name that must resonate with any Edward Thomas fan.
 In April 1916, while convalescing from an illness, Thomas wrote a set of four 'Household Poems', of which the first is addressed to his elder daughter, Bronwen.

If I should ever by chance grow rich 
I'll buy Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch, 
Roses, Pyrgo, and Lapwater, 
And let them all to my elder daughter. 
The rent I shall ask of her will be only 
Each year's first violets, white and lonely, 
The first primroses and orchises-- 
She must find them before I do, that is. 
But if she finds a blossom on furze 
Without rent they shall all forever be hers, 
Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch, 
Roses, Pyrgo, and Lapwater,-- 
I shall give them all to my elder daughter. 

The original of this sweet, musical poem, in Thomas's hand, survived among his documents - you can see it here. The Childerditch he was thinking of was a field, of course, and far from Essex.

Thursday 23 February 2017

Doris Day

With Storm Doris raging - well, blowing hard, here in the Southeast - the Met Office is taking the opportunity to tell us what a spiffing wheeze it was on their part to start giving every storm a name. You know how it works - starting each year with an A and advancing alphabetically, naming storms alternately with male and female names. This, a Met Office lady told us on the Today programme this morning, has really captured the public's imagination, raising awareness and encouraging 'engagement through social media channels' - every storm a Twitterstorm, as it were.
  Well maybe, but the storm naming business has also given the long-suffering British people yet another reason to laugh at the Met Office, especially when an ominously-named storm turns out to be no more than a puff of wind, or a storm with a totally pathetic name proves to be a real one - Doris, for heaven's sake...
  Last year's naming didn't get beyond Katie, thereby depriving us of the eagerly awaited Storm Nigel. If we get as far as K this year, we'll have Storm Kamil; a little farther and we'll get to the terrifying Storm Malcolm, or even the verbally challenging Oisin, by way of this year's N - Storm Natalie (be afraid...). If, by some meteorological fluke, we get as far as W, we'll have what must be the most pathetic storm name ever - Storm Wilbert. But now I must go out into Storm Doris - I may be some time.

Tuesday 21 February 2017

Piperise Your Snaps

It's not often (actually it's never) that I get an idea for an 'app', but one came to me the other day, so I pass it on for the benefit of any hot young app designer who might be reading this, unlikely as that is. Here's the pitch...
  We've all been there. You're on a church crawl, you come across a particularly striking church  in a fine setting that will surely make a good picture. You duly photograph it, look at the resulting image, are mildly disappointed, and think 'What would John Piper have made of this scene?'
  If you're at Binham Priory, say, you can easily find out. Let's say this is your photograph -

  And here is Piper's picture of the same scene, infused with dramatic presence and a brooding sense of imminent apocalypse - or at least rain ('pretty unlucky with the weather, Mr Piper,' as George VI remarked) - by the artist's bold and well loaded brush -

 But what if you've photographed a church - or it might be a historic house or some random ruin - and there is no John Piper picture of it? Well, that's where the John Piper app comes in. With a touch of a button you can Piperise your snap and transform it into a work of art, with computer-generated pen-and-ink detailing and washes of glowing (or glowering) Pipercolour. How good would that be? I'd buy it like a shot.

Monday 20 February 2017

The Year Begins

At last, my patience (what patience? It's only February - Ed.) has been rewarded and I've seen my first butterfly of the year. I was taking a hopeful stroll around a local nature reserve called Wilderness Island - which was indeed a tangled wilderness when I was a boy but has since been tamed and cleared sufficiently to provide a habitat for a good range of wildlife, from bats to butterflies. The sun was out, there was a vernal warmth in the air - and there, on a brisk questing flight among the trees, sulphur yellow against  holly-and-ivy green, was a Brimstone. The year's begun! Spring is round the corner, soon there will be more butterflies, more of these joyous moments. Indeed, I had seen four or five more Brimstones before I left the island, a happy, smiling aurelian. And so home.

Sunday 19 February 2017

Best Second

The Royal Society of Literature is running a poll to find The Nation's Favourite Second Novel, which seems an excellent idea - here's the (not very) shortlist. There's probably a pattern there somewhere - in many cases that of a successful second novel following an undistinguished debut. Would a failed first-timer get a second chance in today's publishing climate?
  And it can take more than two attempts for some novelists to get it right (J.G. Farrell, for example, whose Troubles was preceded by three duds). Any of today's novelists who have a second commission are more likely to find themselves in the unenviable situation of musicians faced with the 'difficult second album' problem. However, the number of recent titles in the RSL list suggests that at least some have been allowed a second chance after a less than brilliant debut.
  But what of the list? Leaving aside Ulysses and Tristram Shandy as being in another league altogether, I think from these titles I'd probably vote for Larkin's A Girl in Winter, an underrated novel that has haunted me ever since I read it (and one that was preceded by something very much inferior).  As for omissions, I'd certainly have included Ivy Compton-Burnett's Pastors and Masters (a second novel so different from her first that it could have been written by someone else) and Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Shirley Hazzard's The Bay of Noon, W.G. Sebald's Vertigo, maybe Nabokov's King, Queen, Knave.
 Any thoughts? More omissions? Which title would get your vote?
 (More on how to vote here.)

Saturday 18 February 2017

Beautiful Exceptions

I know it's still February, but I'm itching to see my first butterfly of the year. Six species have already been logged on the Butterfly Conservation website (beginning with Red Admiral and Peacock both on January 1st), but I've yet to see one, and it's been too long - three and a half months in fact, since I saw one last Holly Blue on All Hallows' Eve last year.
 Yesterday being sunny and just about warm, I went down the garden to eat my lunchtime sandwich - first time this year - and hoped that perhaps some early butterfly would flutter my way. No such luck, I'm afraid, but I was amply entertained by the next best thing - the goldfinches flying down to feast on my nyger seed feeders. These birds have been a constant, and very welcome, presence ever since I put those feeders up - or rather ever since the day, several weeks later, when they finally plucked up the courage to come and feed.
 It's a wonderful thing that these brilliantly coloured little birds are now so abundant over much of the country. When I was a boy, it was quite an event to see one at all, but now they are, in effect, the new sparrows - they're everywhere, flying about with their darting, dipping flight, twittering their silvery song, feasting on nyger seeds when not busy with thistle heads. And it's a joy to see them - especially in these times, when almost all the birds that are thriving in suburbia are big, noisy, aggressive types: all our corvid friends and, round here, the phenomenally successful and phenomenally raucous ring-necked parakeets.
 I recently read a book about the bird life of Australia which painted a nightmare picture of burly, loud-beaked, thuggish birds dominating the parks and gardens of suburbia to such an extent that they pose a threat to life and limb - human as well as avian; deaths and injuries from bird attacks are quite common Down Under. And yet their besotted human victims continue - despite legal bans - to feed these monstrous birds, often with gobbets of raw flesh. It's a kind of avian Stockholm syndrome...
 Happily we in this country are not there yet, and it's unlikely that we'll ever have to cope with the likes of cassowaries and brush-turkeys - but the trend towards larger, louder and hungrier birds driving out the weaker songbirds is worrying enough. Along with the still thriving tits - and the easily overlooked dunnock - goldfinches are the beautiful exceptions. Long may they thrive.

Thursday 16 February 2017

'A stupid person's idea of a clever person' and other misattributions

As everyone is continually pointing out, we live in an era of 'fake news' - which means that 'fake news' is in the, er, news - you know, the other news - and there's quite a lot of it around, thanks to the opportunities presented by social media, the world wide web, etc. No doubt this is true, though I fancy the borderline between 'fake' and 'real' in this area can be a little porous, and 'fake' news can sometimes point to a kind of truth (though more usually to a pack of lies).
 But I'm not going to get drawn into all that - I'd rather take a look at the proliferation of undoubted 'fake quotes' on social media. Me, I only dabble in Facebook and have never emitted a tweet, but I'm constantly coming across quotations that are obviously misattributed. They often become very successful 'memes', and some of them are presented as words of strangely topical wisdom from sages of the past. In these cases, some plainly modern usage usually gives the game away.
 This doesn't bother me greatly, but today it led me to delve, in an idle moment, into the wider field of misquotation and misattribution - two mis-es that have been thriving since long before the internet. Examples include 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it' (never said by Voltaire but put into his mouth by an English writer called Evelyn Beatrice Hall) and 'Elementary, my dear Watson', 'Play it again, Sam' and 'You dirty rat!' (never said by, respectively, Holmes, Bogart and Cagney). I was interested to learn that 'The end justifies the means' goes back all the way to Ovid (exitus acta probat). Then there are quotations that are obviously biblical - expect that they're not: 'Between a rock and a hard place' originated in early 20th-century America and caught on fast - and as for 'God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb', that is from Laurence Sterne, of all people (in one of the sermons of Yorick - about whom, of course, the words 'Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well' were never spoken).
 But one of the best misattributions I came across was 'A stupid person's idea of a clever person', generally believed to be Julie Burchill skewering Stephen Fry. But was it? By Burchill's account, 'My husband claims that it was I who coined the line about Stephen Fry being "a stupid person's idea of a clever person". And if I weren't a sober person's idea of a booze-addled person, I might be more useful in remembering whether this was true or not. Whatever, it's pretty damn good.' Indeed it is. And it was first said in the Thirties by Elizabeth Bowen, about Aldous Huxley - who surely fits the bill at least as well as Fry.

Tuesday 14 February 2017

Frank Harris: 'Had he not been a thundering liar...'

I need hardly remind my readers that today is Ss Cyril and Methodius' Day. It is also, probably, the anniversary of the birth of Frank Harris in, probably, 1855. I say probably because, thanks to Harris's compulsive self-mythologising, almost nothing in his early life story can be reliably identified as fact. The year of his birth might have been 1856, or as early as 1852, and the place might have been Tenby in Wales rather than the more generally accepted Galway in Ireland. Whatever the facts, young Harris (who in later life would reminisce about his schooldays at Rugby, while wearing an old Etonian tie) at some point attended the grammar school at Ruabon, North Wales.
 Here's Hugh Kingsmill, Harris's first biographer, on young Frank's schooldays:
'On what foundation of actual fact Harris has erected the super-structure of his youthful triumphs, even the most indulgent reader of his autobiography will pause to wonder. At the age of thirteen he was already in the school cricket eleven; he had learnt Paradise Lost by heart in a week; as Shylock he had anticipated the particular piece of business so much applauded fifteen years later in Henry Irving's rendering of that part; he had made love to a girl his own age in church, and had come within measurable distance of overpowering a French governess in a rustic summer-house; he had rejected the supernatural element in religion, but hoped to profit by the example of Christ's life [!]; he had awakened to the beauty of nature, and at all times of day and night, he tells us, caught glimpses that ravished him with delight and turned his being into a hymn of praise and beauty; and he had thrashed the school bully, a boy of seventeen or eighteen, the captain of the cricket eleven.'
 Not long after, Harris ran away from school and set sail for America, where various adventures, actual and fictitious, awaited him, including a spell working at the Fremont House hotel in Chicago, where the protagonist of Bryan Appleyard's Bedford Park first comes across him. But that's another story...
 'Had he not been a thundering liar,' Time magazine reflected in 1960, 'Frank Harris would have been a  great autobiographer...  he had the crippling disqualification that he told the truth, as Max Beerbohm remarked,  only "when his invention flagged".' Talking of Max Beerbohm, here is one of his choicest caricatures of Harris: 'Had Shakespeare asked me...'

Sunday 12 February 2017

And, talking of Brexit...

Here's Susan Hill in the current Spectator:
'Brexit has been as bad as any surge [her previous paragraph is about tidal surges] in washing away hitherto strong foundations. I am talking about friendships. I have never known the like. To be called a racist, a 'little Englander' and worse was bad enough, but to have people one has long known and liked say they could no longer be friends with 'someone like you' was very shocking.'
Shocking it is indeed, but all too common in the wake of the referendum. It's a terrible reflection on how low the level of discourse has sunk in this country, and how completely many of our fellow citizens have lost all sense of proportion, let alone basic human decency.

'just-bearable small talk mutating into unbearable large talk'

It's not often that anyone - still less a journalist - puts in a good word for those of us who don't much like talking, find even the most agreeable conversation something of a strain, and would just as soon remain silent, thanks very much. But in today's Telegraph, one Lucy Mangan utters a heartfelt plea for understanding on behalf of the irredeemably laconic and taciturn.
We are suffering more than usual at the moment, thanks to recent political developments. As she puts it, 'Brexit and Trump have not just increased our engagement with the world at large, which is a terrible depredation on our need for psychical and actual solitude, but also increased the threat of just-bearable small talk mutating into unbearable large talk - loud, impassioned, and with no end or resolution ever in sight - to frightening proportions.... For the naturally extrovert, these are glory days. The rest of us curse the sunny hours we wasted not fixing the roof of the lead-lined bunker that we need to hole up in during these controversially apocalyptic times.' Hear, hear.
I would provide a link to this piece, but it counts as 'premium' content on the Telegraph website, so you'd have to pay. Members of the Telegraph's wonderfully persistent sales force keep phoning to plead with me to sign up for this paid content, but I ain't going to do so for the sake of the occasional gem (as Virgil put it, Apparent rari nantes in gurgite vasto).

Saturday 11 February 2017

Novelty Corner

Since my post on a paper Daniel Dennett proved surprisingly popular, I follow it up with this - an 'awesome' Vincent Van Gogh action figure, with detachable ear supplied as a standard. Also note sunflower in buttonhole and suitably Dutch clogs on feet. Surely every art lover should have one.

Friday 10 February 2017

'Smyt fast, give gode knocks!'

Today is St Scholastica's Day, remembered in Oxford as the date of a famous riot in 1355, in which 63 scholars and around 30 locals died.
 It began in a tavern, where two university yahoos insulted and assaulted the taverner, sparking a dramatic eruption of violence between Town and Gown. Some 200 students took up arms against the angry townspeople, whose numbers were swollen by volunteers from the country around, crying 'Havoc! Havoc! Smyt fast, give gode knocks!' And who can blame them?
 After two days of fighting, a settlement was reached, in favour of - you guessed! - the University. On every St Scholastica's Day until 1825, the Mayor and councillors were obliged to process bareheaded through the streets and pay the University a fine for every scholar killed.
 There was no such unpleasantness at Cambridge, where the students couldn't stir themselves for such exertions, being too busy staring into the abyss and vainly fighting the Fenland cold.

Thursday 9 February 2017

Occupy Facebook

I don't do very much on Facebook, using it mostly to post the odd photo and keep up with a few people. But I'm strangely enthused by a campaign just getting under way that aims to 'occupy Facebook with art, breaking up all the political posts'. Everyone who gets involved - by 'liking' a picture posted by someone else - is assigned an artist from whose work they must post an image. Then everyone who 'likes' that post will be given an artist, and so it will snowball on, carpet-bombing Facebook with quality art. This can only be a good thing.
 Me, I was assigned Millais as my artist, and put up his Lorenzo and Isabella (above), discreetly drawing readers' attention to the ambiguous shadow thrown by the nutcracker the big fellow on the left is menacingly wielding...

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Goat Glands, Anyone? John Romulus Brinkley

If it hadn't been for my son mentioning him the other day, I might never have heard of John Romulus Brinkley, quack doctor extraordinaire and inadvertent radio pioneer.  My son had come across him in a podcast, which I duly attempted to listen to, but, podcasts being at the outer limits of my techno capacity, it duly gave up on me after a few minutes. So I went to Wikipedia to get the facts about John Romulus Brinkley - and they are truly jaw-dropping, even for the times and places he was operating in. Read and marvel...
 Brinkley has been the subject of a fairly recent biography, and of a documentary film, but his life reads like something out of fiction, and it's surprising it hasn't inspired or fed into a novel - did he perhaps make a cameo appearance in Stanley Elkin's The Dick Gibson Show? Dr Reo Symes in Charles Portis's The Dog of the South is cut from much the same cloth as Brinkley, as is Austin Popper in Masters of Atlantis. And what might the Coen Brothers make of the John Romulus Brinkley story...?

Monday 6 February 2017

Antonio Tabucchi's Requiem

Regulars will know that one of my favourite bookshops is the economically named The Bookshop in the Derbyshire town of Wirksworth. Despite its relatively small stock, I rarely leave empty-handed - and so it proved on my most recent visit, last week. I bought two pleasingly slim volumes - Nabokov's Mary (his first published novel), reissued in a Penguin series called Great Loves, and a title new to me: Requiem by Antonio Tabucchi. Looking at the notes on the back, I discovered that Requiem (first published in 1991) is set in Lisbon, on a broiling hot July day - and that was enough for me. My affection for Lisbon is such that (as with Venice) I'll read almost anything set there.
 Now I have read Requiem and, though I reached the end unsure whether it amounted to anything much more than a bagatelle, I enjoyed the experience, the evocation of different parts of the city, and the pervasive atmosphere of that untranslatable Portuguese phenomenon, saudade - a kind of melancholy nostalgic yearning for something that is not present and may never have been.
 Requiem is subtitled A Hallucination, and it inhabits a world in which past and present, fact and fiction mingle freely, and Lisbon itself seems strangely fluid, a kind of dream city. The narrator finds himself in a largely deserted Lisbon - the heat having driven everyone to the beach - with a day to kill before an appointed meeting with a long-dead poet, 'a great poet, perhaps the greatest poet of the twentieth century'.
 Although he is never named, this can only be Fernando Pessoa (best known as the author of The Book of Disquiet), a writer more identified with and absorbed into the city of Lisbon than almost any other writer with any city. All Portuguese writers - especially if Lisbon is any part of their subject - live in the huge shadow, or rather radiance, of Pessoa, and Tabucchi (an Italian by birth, Portuguese by adoption) is no exception. References to Pessoa, his various 'heteronyms' (literary personae) and his works abound in Requiem, which consists of a succession of brief meetings between the narrator and a fast-moving cast of characters, some from his past life, some casual presences, some strayed from Pessoa's fictions (and a surprising number from Alentejo, the province beyond the Tagus).
 There is a lot of talking and story-telling, and a great deal of eating - indeed the book is so full of food that it has an appendix of notes on the recipes featured. Whether Requiem makes a satisfying meal in itself is another question. It's certainly not as substantial as Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, another novel set in Lisbon and soaked in the abiding presence(s) of Pessoa - nor, indeed, as substantial as the average Portuguese meal. But for anyone interested in Lisbon and its genius loci, it's worth a try - and it's refreshingly short.

Saturday 4 February 2017

Portrait of the Artist

Yesterday I went to have a look at Portrait of the Artist, the current exhibition at the Queen's Gallery (at Buckingham Palace). Larger and wider-ranging than I was expecting, it's made up of images of artists - self-portraits, portraits, pictures of artists at work, celebrations of the 'cult of the artist' - taken from the vast riches of the Royal Collection, and ranging in date from the 15th century to the 21st (represented by a Hockney iPad self-portrait). In scale, the pictures on display range from small-scale drawings (including a fascinating little Parmigianino self-portrait, perhaps a study for the famous convex one) to large, grand paintings - none larger  or grander than Lord Leighton's glorious Cimabue's Madonna Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence, which used to hang over the main staircase of the National Gallery and can be enjoyed much better here.
 There are lovely self-portrait drawings by the Caracci brothers, Piazzetta and Bernini, confronting his mortality with open eyes. There's Rosalba Carriera's last self-portrait, calm and subdued, and a fine selection of miniatures, including self-portraits by Isaac Oliver and Samuel Cooper. On one wall hangs a row of three superb self-portraits from the 17th century - Rembrandt at the peak of his career, in a flat cap, with a gold ear-ring and two gold chains; Rubens exuding self-confidence, creative energy and swagger; and Daniel Mytens (below) turning a steady, half-defiant gaze on us.

 Curiosities include a Landseer self-portrait entitled The Connoisseurs, with two dogs (the 'connoisseurs' of the title) looking over his shoulder at what he is painting, a self-portrait by Thomas Patch in which he portrays himself as an ox, and a self-aggrandising effort by one Emma Gaggiotti Richards (a favourite of Victoria's), looking like a kind of artistic dominatrix. There's also an enjoyably brushy Alfred Stevens - A Girl in Pink Leaning on a Chair.
 Two high-impact Italian Baroque masterpieces form the climax of the exhibition - Cristoforo Allori's Judith with the Head of Holofernes (the former modelled by an ex-mistress of the artist, the latter by Allori himself, or so it is believed) and Artemisia Gentileschi's stunning Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (top). This virtuoso work, brilliantly conceived and executed, would alone be worth the price of admission. Talking of which, if you gift-aid your entry fee you can get a free pass for the rest of the year to this always rewarding gallery.

Friday 3 February 2017

'It may be said that we ought to read our Contemporaries...'

There's an excellent 'Pulpit' editorial in this month's Literary Review, in which Nicholas Murray, a poet, biographer and publisher, politely questions recent claims that we are now living in 'a golden age for poetry'. For Murray, the only question that really matters in the end is 'Is it any good?' - not how much of it is there around, how big are the prizes, how much of a splash is it making? He would like to see a little more discriminating criticism and 'a little less prize-night babble' in the world of poetry. Indeed.
  On this day in 1818, in a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds, Keats wrote:
'It may be said that we ought to read our Contemporaries - that Wordsworth &c. should have their due from us. But, for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egoist - Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself.... We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us - and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself, but with its subject. - How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, "admire me I am a violet! - dote upon me I am a primrose!" Modern poets differ from the Elizabethans in this. Each of the moderns like an Elector of Hanover governs his petty state, and knows how many straws are swept daily from the Causeways in all his dominions and has a continual itching that all the Housewives should have their coppers well scoured: the antients were Emperors of vast Provinces, they had only heard of the remote ones and scarcely cared to visit them. - I will cut all this - I will have no more of Wordsworth or Hunt in particular - Why should we be of the tribe of Manasseh, when we can wander with Esau? why should we kick against the Pricks when we can walk on Roses? Why should we be Owls, when we can be Eagles?...'
  Golden age or no golden age, it is always more profitable to look back than to look around.

Thursday 2 February 2017

A Different World

I've no idea what this quirky item is doing on the BBC News website, but I'm delighted to have found it on this grey, wet and windy day, and pass it on in the interest of spreading a little good cheer.
 I particularly like the piquant juxtaposition of details of everyday Seventies life (and fashion) with these bizarre traditions - some of which I imagine have since passed into oblivion. Those that survive are no doubt barely visible these days for the ranks of head-high tablets and mobiles filming the proceedings. None of which will come up with anything half as eloquent as Homer Sykes's old-school black and white photographs.