Thursday 28 February 2019

Technical Note

Several times recently, valued would-be commenters have told me that they are having problems posting comments on this blog, and often find themselves getting nowhere at all in their efforts to do so. Of course I have no way of knowing how many people are being affected by this. Nor do I have any idea why it is happening. I've looked on various Blogger forums, but am none the wiser.
I wonder if my more technically-minded readers have any suggestions as to how I might fix this problem? You can contact me by email (
Thank you.

Easy Money and Smart Thinking

This morning I was approached by a lady with a clipboard who asked me if I'd take part in a little market research. Normally I say no to this kind of thing, but two factors swayed me this time: the research was taking place in a nearby church hall complex that I was mildly curious to see, and a £5 note was on offer, just for answering a few simple questions.
 The questions were indeed simple (to do with the local water company); I had the pleasure of looking around the attractive late Gothic interior of the church hall complex (1907, by Gordon & Gunton – it's in Pevsner); and I came out with a new fiver in my pocket. I decided to invest my newfound wealth in a small book, if I could find anything suitable in the Waterstone's around the corner.
 Browsing the shelves, I was surprised to discover a large section devoted to 'Smart Thinking'. What could that be? I wondered. On easy chairs nearby, a respectable-looking elderly man and woman who seemed to be friends were chatting in rather carrying voices. The conversation began, in the usual way, with health and symptoms... I examined the 'Smart Thinking' shelves, soon discovering that it was a mix of popular science, trendy ideas (lefty of course) and instant smart aleck books, but with a few classics dotted about, apparently at random – The Prince (fair enough, I suppose), Utopia (smart?), the Communist Manifesto...
 By the time I tuned back in to the carrying conversation from the easy chairs, the subject had changed, rather alarmingly, to Viagra. Both the lady and the gentleman seemed more than happy that the heyday in the blood was tame, and neither fancied the idea of senile sexual athletics. But that was far from the end of the conversation, as it wandered into the field of what these days are called 'relationships'. The lady gave a particularly lurid account of an evening with a man who seemed to think he had bought her favours for the price of a couple of drinks... But I mustn't pass on any more of what was presumably intended to be a private conversation, even if anyone within 20ft could hear every word. I bought a suitably small book – Carlo Rivelli's Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – and went on my way.
 Incidentally, there was no sign of Montaigne (a truly smart thinker) on those Smart Thinking shelves. It's his 486th birthday today.

Wednesday 27 February 2019

Gunn's Bewick

Last year I picked up a copy of Thom Gunn's My Sad Captains in a local charity shop. Yesterday I spotted his Jack Straw's Castle in the same shop, and snapped it up (1977 reprint, classic Faber cover, £1.99).
Here, from Jack Straw's Castle, is Thomas Bewick, a poem about the great wood engraver that manages to encapsulate the man himself, his works and the country he depicted in them, all in one elegant package. I've walked in that country – beside the rural Tyne, well upstream of Newcastle – and at times it is like walking through Bewick's engravings. As is Gunn's poem...
I think of a man on foot
going through thick woods,
a buckle on his brimmed hat,
a stick in his hand.

He comes on from the deep
shadow now to the gladed parts
where light speckles the ground
like scoops out of darkness.

Gnarled branches reaching down
their green gifts; weed reaching up
milky flower and damp leaf.

I think of a man fording
a pebbly stream. A rock
is covered in places with
minute crops of moss
– frail stalks of yellow rising
from the green, each
bloom of it distinct, as
he notices. He notices
the bee's many-jointed legs and its     
papery wings veined like leaf,         
or the rise of a frog's back
into double peaks, and this morning
by a stile he noticed ferns
afloat on air.

                     Drinking from
clear stream and resting
on the rock he loses himself
in detail,
               he reverts
to an earlier self, not yet
separate from what it sees,

a selfless self as difficult
to recover and hold as to
capture the exact way
a burly bluetit grips
its branch (leaning forward)
over this rock
                       and in
The History of British Birds.

Tuesday 26 February 2019

The White Cutter

One of the names I came across in the Book of Forgotten Authors that was among my Christmas presents was that of David Pownall – which rang quite a loud bell with me. Back in the day I must have reviewed a good many of his radio plays, and I certainly read and enjoyed his two comic novels set in Africa, The Raining Tree War and African Horse, both in the tradition of Waugh, and both probably too politically incorrect to be published today. Pownall seems to be (he's still with us) one of those authors who wrote too much, across too wide a range of themes and forms, to be easily pigeonholed or granted the critical reverence reserved for the more costive. I was interested to read of one of his novels, The White Cutter (1988), set in the thirteenth century and telling the tale of a pair of stonemasons, father and son; their tempestuous relationship; and the succession of adventures the boy, who is the narrator, goes through on the way to the act of parricide for which he is atoning by (among other penances) writing this book, which is to be burnt when completed.
  Having now read The White Cutter, I can report that it's an excellent piece of work, something of a picaresque 'rattling good yarn' with frequent changes of scene and dramatic incidents, but with real historical, psychological and philosophical depth. Religious rather than philosophical  perhaps, for Herbert and Hedric, the father and son, are Albigensian heretics, as are (we are told) all stonemasons, whose ultimate business is to work under the radar of the Christians – 'Cretins', as they call them – and bring to birth the Second and Third Style of Emergence which will follow the 'pointy' Gothic (and they don't mean Dec and Perp, but something far more radical). They're making a good job of it so far...
'We were being elevated, vaunted as the new heroes in the ultimate battle, as the Cretins saw it: the Armageddon between the army of Human Prayer and the fortress of Christ's Indifference (sometimes called mercy). As we put up the great churches, they took them as evidence of Man's penetration of the divine consciousness. The higher the church, the deeper it got into the core of the supreme being's esprit.'
  Hedric, the son, has (unlike his father) a touch of architectural genius, which brings him to the attention of The Four who are the rulers of England – the King (Henry III, who has a surprising second identity), Simon de Montfort, Richard Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, and the King's master mason, Henry de Reyns, architect of Westminster Abbey. The story follows the twists and turns of Hedric's relationship with his wilful and unreliable father and his surrogate, Master Henry, and his often perilous adventures, including a desperate flight from cannibalistic Carthusian monks in Ireland and an ambush by Robin Hood's men. It all goes on rather too long, some of the cast of characters don't really come to life, and the closing stages of the narrative aren't as gripping as the earlier parts, but this was an exhilarating reading experience – and clearly the work of a novelist who deserves to be remembered.

Sunday 24 February 2019

Butterflies, Dead White Males and Brexiteers

This early spring / warm spring / warm spell has been a joy. For several days now, the early afternoon sun has warmed things up to such an extent that I've even been reduced to shirtsleeves. And it has brought the early butterflies out: in the three days around mid-month I saw a Red Admiral, a first Brimstone, a Peacock and a Tortoiseshell, all without straying from my usual haunts. There have been many Brimstones since – and today, walking on Ashtead common, I happened on a Comma, basking in the unseasonal sunshine. That's five species – and it's still February! Most years I see nothing, even a Brimstone, until March. If this is that 'climate change' the schoolkids are warning us about, it certainly has its upside... But it could equally well be the deceptive prelude to a bitter late winter, with the country shivering in the grip of the Beast from the East again. I'm making no forecasts.

On Desert Island Discs this morning, I was amused to hear the very likeable historian Margaret Macmillan talking about the difficulties she faced in getting her book about the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 published. One respected university press told her that no one would be interested in a book about 'dead white males sitting around a table talking'. Eventually a publisher took it, and since then Peacemakers (US title Paris 1919) has sold around half a million copies.

Earlier, I was less amused to hear Yasmin Alibhai-Brown describing those who want to actually leave the EU – which, as is now clear, can only be done via 'No Deal' – as 'Brexit Jihadis'. What a truly delightful turn of phrase.

Saturday 23 February 2019

Thinking on Paper

Also yesterday, I dropped in on the British Museum (which seemed to be even more packed than usual – no doubt the half term effect) to take a look at the prints and drawings gathered for a small exhibition called Rembrandt: Thinking on Paper. One of many exhibitions planned for the 350th anniversary of the artist's death, this one brought together in one room some 65 items from the BM's own collection – etchings and drypoints in various states, drawings, and even one rare example of a surviving copper plate (below – a wonderful thing to see).
The arrangement is thematic – portraits, self-portraits, landscapes and biblical scenes – and the caption information is very useful in illuminating Rembrandt's working methods. It's not an epoch-making exhibition, but for anyone with an interest in this aspect of Rembrandt's work – and a love of drawing and printmaking at their very best – it's a must. The drawings alone – quick, spontaneous, full of life – are ample evidence that this was an artist of phenomenal natural gifts. The prints, exquisitely worked and reworked with an astonishingly sure touch, confirm how hard he worked on his art and how he never stopped developing and experimenting as an artist and printmaker. In one state of an etching of the entombment of Christ, Rembrandt has created an almost entirely black image, which yields just the faintest glimmer of its subject in one corner of the plate – an extraordinary effect.
  In the little sketch below – dashed off in minutes – a mischievous toddler succeeds in removing a man's hat. All done with a few deft strokes of the pen.

Friday 22 February 2019

In the Poets' Church

Today I dropped in on the ironically named St Giles in the Fields, Bloomsbury, which now stands surrounded not by fields but by hideous and very tall buildings, including Centre Point, not to mention roaring traffic and hordes of people dashing by. It's a rather fine, galleried and gilded mid-18th-century church, nicely restored in the mid-20th, and has a few monuments from the old church that preceded the present one. The best is that of Lady Frances Kniveton, with its white marble effigy (above), which dates from the 1660s and is probably by Edward Marshall or his son Joshua, both of whom were capable of good work. The figure of Lady Frances, lying in her rather sketchily realised shroud, is a little bland (and not in the same league as Nicholas Stone's Lady Berkeley at Cranford or Lady Bruce at Exton), but it has a certain quiet beauty.
  St Giles is known as the Poets' Church and has a surprising number of poetical associations. George Chapman, the translator of Homer and inspirer of Keats, has a memorial, erected by his friend Inigo Jones. John Milton brought his second daughter, Mary, to be baptised in the old church. In 1818, the atheist Shelley and his friend Byron had William and Clara (Shelley) and Clara Allegra (Byron) baptised in the new church. Edward Herbert, brother of the more famous George, is buried in the crypt. And Andrew Marvell, who lived nearby and is buried under the South aisle, has a memorial tablet inscribed with what must be one of the most fulsome epitaphs any English poet ever received. He was, according to this, 'a man so endowed by Nature, so improved by Education, Study, and Travel, so consummated by Experience, that, joining the peculiar graces of Wit and Learning, with a singular penetration and strength of judgment; and exercising all these in the whole course of his life, with an unutterable steadiness in the ways of Virtue, he became the ornament and example of his age, beloved by good men, feared by bad, admired by all, though imitated by few; and scarce paralleled by any...'  Phew – really?

Wednesday 20 February 2019

That Arundel Tomb

On this day in 1956, Philip Larkin signed off on a poem that was to become one of his most famous – An Arundel Tomb. Its resonant last line, 'What will survive of us is love', now bookends, along with 'They f*ck you up, your mum and dad', his popular reputation. Both lines, wrested out of context and mistaken for expressions of personal opinion, are false to Larkin's endlessly nuanced, anxiously qualified poetry. And yet both tell us something about Larkin's poetical personas – the outspoken philistinism at one end, the reluctant tenderness at the other. 'What will survive of us is love' is a line much quoted in funeral services, though few risk quoting even the stanza in which it occurs, hedged about as it is with 'as if', 'almost' and 'almost', with 'untruth' and 'hardly meant'.
  An Arundel Tomb was inspired by a winter visit to Chichester cathedral (with Monica Jones), where Larkin came across the 14th-century effigies of  Richard FitzAlan, 10th Earl of Arundel, and his second wife, Eleanor of Lancaster (whose actual tomb is at Lewes priory). Larkin had never seen a double effigy of this kind in which the couple's hands are joined, and he found the sight 'deeply affecting'. He even, in a later interview, came surprisingly close to endorsing that famous last line: 'I think what survives of us is love, whether in the simple biological sense or just in terms of responding to life, making it happier, even if it's only making a joke...' Which is not claiming a lot for the survival of love, but by Larkin's standards it's a recklessly life-affirming declaration.
 However, Larkin also scribbled at the bottom of one draft of the poem, 'Love isn't stronger than death just because statues hold hands for 600 years.' And he had reservations about An Arundel Tomb as a poem, partly because he'd muddled up the hands (the Earl's right, not left, holds the Countess's) and had not realised that the effigies, having been separated and left forgotten in a corner of the cathedral, were restored in 1843, and it was at that point that the present joined hands were carved (the originals having been lost). He might have learned, too, that the gesture of joining hands is not all that uncommon on medieval monuments (I wrote about one here) and denotes something much closer to dynastic union than to romantic love.
  In its posthumous history, An Arundel Tomb has – thanks to that last line – almost enacted the process it describes. Something 'hardly meant' is in danger of being 'transfigured into untruth', of becoming the poet's 'final blazon'. But that 'sharp tender shock' in the second stanza was, and is, real. And Larkin would probably be happy enough to know that his stone in Poets' Corner carries the legend 'What will survive of us is love'.

Monday 18 February 2019


Last night I caught the first part of a new Channel 4 drama called Traitors. At first I wasn't exactly watching, but gradually it drew me in and I got interested. It's set in 1945, in the aftermath of Labour's great postwar victory, and the drama revolves around a US intelligence effort to recruit a British civil servant to spy on the new government from the inside and report back on its presumed Communist sympathies. I don't know whether this really happened, but it doesn't seem particularly implausible – though the murderous ruthlessness of the American recruiting agent certainly does.
  A relative newcomer called Emma Appleton plays the recruit, a posh young lady in search of excitement – and she's already turning in a vivid, nuanced performance. We'll be seeing a lot more of her, I think. But what makes Traitors distinctively different – especially from BBC drama productions – is an intelligent script and a pleasingly light touch, with moments of comedy smoothly blended with the serious stuff. What's more, it's not filmed in the dark, and you can hear what the actors are saying – both big pluses as far as I'm concerned. Keeley Hawes, in one of her less glamorous roles, enters the mix next week, and the word is that things really liven up when she and Emma Appleton get going.
  Last night's episode ended with the male lead, now a newly elected Labour MP, delivering a rousing maiden speech in the Commons, full of hope and confidence in the New Jerusalem that Labour was going to deliver. Arch reactionary though I am, even I, I fancy, might have entertained the idea of voting Labour in that election.  How very long ago it seems today, as the sorry remnants of a once great party begin to fall apart...

Saturday 16 February 2019

Peter Porter

Peter Porter, the Australian-born poet, would have been 90 today (he died in 2010). He was a fine poet who deserves to be remembered, and I've written about him here several times.
This elegant sonnet I came across recently in the anthology of church poems, Building Jerusalem. The window that inspired it (pictured above) commemorates H. Rider Haggard, the hugely successful writer of adventure stories (King Solomon's Mines, She, etc.). He was also an agricultural and political reformer, and a Norfolk farmer, who lived near Ditchingham church and was a churchwarden there. The window in his memory was installed in 1925.

The Rider Haggard Window, St Mary, Ditchingham

Time which eats the stories of our lives
Preserves a cruel freshness here to show
How energetic certainty contrives
To tell us what we think we almost know:
The warlike God of England will bestow
At least in retrospect on loyal wives
A school apotheosis, dirge of knives,
With dying, quick in life, in glass made slow.

A dubious transfer this, as history cools,
An ancient trespass, but a change of rules.
The world was opening which today is closed,
And where the mind went, destiny would tread
With God and Science noisily opposed
And story-telling garlanding the dead.

Thursday 14 February 2019

Where Are the Bolshies Now?

I was amused – well, appalled and aghast, but also amused (what can you do?) – to come across this story of ideologically inspired truancy in the Highlands. At least this girl is meeting with official disapproval for her actions, but elsewhere, I gather, some 'teachers' are actively encouraging their charges to walk out and protest against 'climate change' tomorrow.
  Clearly, now that 'the science is fixed', the CACC (catastrophic anthropogenic climate change) model is firmly entrenched as unquestionable dogma in our schools. Children are being taught this kind of thing as fact, rather than given the knowledge and intellectual tools to question it – or any other dogma. I'd like to think there are still bolshie little buggers in our schools who will miss no opportunity to question what the beaks are telling them (rather like Master Nige in his schooldays), but we hear and see nothing of them. Has the brainwashing really been that successful? I devoutly hope not.
 I'm always impressed by how little our children seem to be taught in school, compared to how it used to be, back in the day when an 11-year-old fresh from primary school knew about as much (in general terms) as today's average undergraduate – and compared to how it is in other countries. The worst effect of this is not so much the lack of knowledge as such, but the fact that this unconscious ignorance leaves children unequipped to argue, inquire and criticise – so they are, alas, wide open to whatever dogma happens to be fashionable.
 Never mind. We're enjoying a spell of wonderfully springlike weather just now (argh – global warming!) and yesterday I saw my first butterfly of the year. It was a Red Admiral, flying strongly southwards along a main road in Cheam. Last year, I didn't see a Red Admiral till mid-June. Every year is different – indeed, at this time last year, a bitter winter was still ahead of us...

Wednesday 13 February 2019

Noggings, Dwangs, Shims and Fake Spots

There was talk of noggings on Grand Designs last night. It was a repeat, of course, and I was rather more than half-watching it because it was a rare departure from the usual egotist-builds-big-glass-house formula (it was the one in which a group of likeminded and impoverished families self-build wooden houses and create a thriving little community). Anyway, the noggings came in when they were assembling the wooden frames. Kevin McCloud (looking very young) talked airily of putting in some noggings. Noggings – also known as dwangs – are small bits of wood used as bracing pieces between the studs or larger members, giving rigidity to the structure. This rang a faint bell – isn't there something similar in a Kay Ryan poem? Not a nogging, but another kind of small filling-in piece, a wedge or fillet, completing a structure... What was the word?
The word was shim, and the poem was this one, Fake Spots

Like air
in rock, fake 
spots got here
really far back.
Everything is
part caulk. 
Some apartments
in apartment blocks
are blanks;
some steeples
are shims. Also
in people: parts
are wedges: and, 
to the parts they keep
apart, precious.

Monday 11 February 2019

Pictures from Mercia

Yes, I've been on my travels again. This is the 'Breedon Angel', an Anglo-Saxon carving – one of many – from the extraordinary church of Ss Mary and Hardulph, Breedon-on-the-Hill. This tall but oddly truncated building – the surviving chancel and crossing tower of something much bigger – stands high on a sudden, dramatic bluff, visible for miles around on the Leicestershire side of the Derby-Leicester border.
  As well as its rich array of Saxon carvings, the church has a grand collection of (mostly Elizabethan) monuments to members of the Shirley family. This is a view of part of a massive two-storey monument to various of them.
Beneath the kneeling figures, praying under decorative arches, lies something very different – a memento mori in the stark form of a skeleton. This one is clearly not based on close anatomical observation, but it is no less effective for that. 
A very much more naturalistic skeleton lies behind and slightly above a shrouded cadaver in the extraordinary monument – simultaneously grand and gruesome – in St Peter, Edensor (Derbyshire), to the brothers William and Henry Cavendish, who died in 1625 and 1616 respectively. The skeleton, dimly visible in the shadows here, represents Henry, the cadaver William.
These figures sit (or rather lie) very oddly in a vast monument that is otherwise all lofty Renaissance grandeur, a work at the cutting edge of monumental fashion. Here's a better view of Henry...
And here's a general view of the whole darned thing, which covers an entire wall and reaches up to the roof.

Thursday 7 February 2019

Liberals Old and New

'Liberal' is a term much bandied about in what passes for political discourse these days. Especially in America, it has become a term of abuse in conservative circles, its perceived meaning encompassing globalism, diversity, multiculturalism, enforced and selective toleration, enmity to free expression, devaluation of family and traditional ties, and an all-encompassing approach that can look worryingly close to an enforced elite monoculture (what's not to hate?). Oddly, this form of liberalism can be the very opposite of what is sometimes called 'classical' liberalism, the Enlightenment-based liberalism that emphasises freedom and equality under the law, and has little or no kinship with the more regrettable aspects of the new elite liberalism (aspects of which have been characterised by John Gray as 'ultra-liberalism', liberalism that has overshot its sensible objectives and become something else altogether).
  There was a time when 'liberal' carried a sweeter and more idealistic connotation, and could describe followers of William Morris, living simple, creative lives, surrounding themselves with beautiful, hand-made things, making music, and believing that a better world was possible if more people lived like them and turned their backs on the destructive mechanical age that was all around them. A few such people were hanging on, marooned in a changed world, in the early 1950s, when John Betjeman wrote his touching poem, The Old Liberals...

Pale green of the English Hymnal! Yattendon hymns
 Played on the hautbois by a lady dress’d in blue
 Her white-hair'd father accompanying her thereto
On tenor or bass-recorder. Daylight swims
 On sectional bookcase, delicate cup and plate
 And William de Morgan tiles around the grate
And many the silver birches the pearly light shines through.

I think such a running together of woodwind sound,
 Such painstaking piping high on a Berkshlre hill,
 Is sad as an English autumn heavy and still,
Sad as a country silence, tractor-drowned;
For deep in the hearts of the man and the woman playing
 The rose of a world that was not has withered away.
Where are the wains with garlanded swathes a-swaying ?
Where are the swains to wend through the lanes a-maying?
 Where are the blithe and jocund to ted the hay?
 Where are the free folk of England? Where are they?

Ask of the Abingdon bus with full load creeping
 Down into denser suburbs. The birch lets go
 But one brown leaf upon browner bracken below.
Ask of the cinema manager. Night airs die
To still, ripe scent of the fungus and wet woods weeping.
 Ask at the fish and chips in the Market Square.
 Here amid firs and a final sunset flare,
Recorder and hautbois only moan at a mouldering sky.

[The Yattendon Hymnal, compiled by Robert Bridges, was an important collection that had a big influence on making of the English Hymnal.
To 'ted the hay' is to spread it out for drying.]

Tuesday 5 February 2019

Hal Blaine – 90 Today!

Incredibly, the great drummer Hal Blaine turns 90 today. One of Phil Spector's legendary Wrecking Crew, he worked with an astonishing number of other musicians, playing on 40 number one singles, 150 top ten hits, and a total (by his calculation) of something like 35,000 recorded tracks. This surely makes him the most prolific drummer of the rock era, as well as one of the very best.
 Some of us remember him fondly for his great work on that strange masterpiece, John Phillips' Wolfking of LA ('Hit it, Hal!'). My old friend the Sage of Tiverton is one. Ten years ago he told me he was determined not to die before Hal Blaine had joined the great jam session in the sky. I hope he makes it...
  Here's Blaine at work on The Ronettes' Be My Baby. Enjoy!

Monday 4 February 2019


talking of great double acts, when we were at Hampton Court last month, I bought a little volume (barely 80 pages) in the Penguin Monarchs series – William III and Mary II by Jonathan Keates. I chose it because I realised how little I knew about these joint monarchs or their reign, pivotal though it was in so many ways. I also suspected that my rudimentary ideas about William in particular might have been shaped by anti-Williamite prejudice and be rather less than fair. I already felt great warmth for Mary, purely on the strength of Purcell's birthday odes and that sublime funeral music. Suffice to say that Keates's concise and elegant double portrait opened my eyes, particularly to William's good qualities and skilful statesmanship, and to the well-earned affection Mary inspired in her people. It's a masterly little history and I warmly recommend it. In fact, if the others in the series are half as good, I might well be reading more of them...

Stan and Ollie: A Joy...

What a whirl – yesterday afternoon to the cinema to see Stan and Ollie, the eagerly awaited (round here, anyway) comedy-drama-biopic about Laurel and Hardy's last tour of the UK in 1953. I can report that it was a joy from beginning to end, with terrific, spot-on performances by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as the leads, and memorable turns by Rufus Jones as the oleaginous Bernard Delfont and Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as the chalk-and-cheese wives. Some minor liberties have been taken with the facts (and the odd period detail) but all in the service of creating an involving and coherent story arc. The Laurel and Hardy comedy routines and song-and-dance turns are recreated beautifully by Coogan and Reilly, who are equally convincing as the off-stage Stan and Ollie. The script takes them through plenty of ups and downs, including a fierce row that almost leads to a break-up, but happily it all ends on a high note. Of course there'll never be another Stan and Ollie, but Coogan and Reilly are as close as we're ever likely to see, and this was a wonderful cinematic experience – funny, touching, cheering and heart-warming.
  Sadly the storyline didn't include Laurel and Hardy's stay at the Bull Inn, Bottesford, where Stan's sister Olga was the landlady – but here's a picture:

Sunday 3 February 2019

Gainsborough's Family Album

Yesterday I went to see the Gainsborough's Family Album exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It was more crowded than I expected, but then this is the last weekend (it closes today) – and it's a terrific exhibition. Terrific in quality, that is, not quantity – fifty-odd pictures, some of them not all that interesting in themselves. The core works, though – the portraits of Gainsborough's family and friends, and of himself – are utterly fascinating, and jawdroppingly good. They have been drawn together from around the world, many from private collections, and some never before seen (including one that was only very recently rediscovered). This exhibition leaves no doubt that Gainsborough was one of the most naturally gifted portrait painters who ever lived, anywhere (though he himself would have much preferred to be a full-time landscapist). His handling of paint – loose, fluid, effortlessly expressive on every scale, from tiny squiggle to grand sweeping brushstroke – is simply dazzling, and this exhibition offers the chance to take a close look at a wide range of work, from quick sketches to finished bravura pieces. Some are fragmentary, and many are 'unfinished', but none the worse for it – Gainsborough's preliminary marks can be as fascinating as his fully finished, exquisitely textured faces. Some of these works could, but for the costume, be mistaken for Sargents.
  The stars of the show are undoubtedly Gainsborough's daughters, Mary and Margaret, familiar to National Gallery visitors from the two touching double portraits there.
In Gainsborough's Family Album, we see them growing up across a wide range of pictures, from a swiftly painted, very direct study of Mary at seven or eight to pictures of the two girls interacting and playing, then portraits of them as fashionable young ladies – 'at their painting' in this extraordinary picture on loan from the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts.
In a fully finished whole-length dazzler (from a private collection), Mary and Margaret pose like any other fashionable society ladies in one of their father's grand portraits.
But it is the more intimate and spontaneous portraits that are the most compelling. In them we feel the father's love and tenderness – and, increasingly, we sense trouble, something wrong under the surface, especially with the elder sister, Mary, whose life did indeed go sadly wrong (short unhappy marriage, slow descent into insanity). These amount to an extraordinarily potent sequences of pictures, and they're complemented by a series of portraits of Thomas's long-suffering but formidable wife. He seems to have presented her with a portrait of herself annually, some more finished than others. In one of the best, she strikes a classical pose – Gainsborough cocking a snook at Reynolds, no doubt. She looks like a woman you wouldn't want to cross (though it seems she never managed to curb Thomas's amatory activities).
As this exhibition makes clear, Gainsborough was a man on the make, successfully rising through society and repeatedly asserting his slender claim to gentlemanly status. Happily, along the way, he continued to paint these tender, intimate and compelling portraits of those closest to him. They are among his finest works.

Friday 1 February 2019

'the earth lying shotten...'

This dank, dripping day – incessant cold drizzle after an early dusting of snow – naturally put me in mind of Geoffrey Hill, a poet whose element is rain and whose season is winter. Here is a short (and accessible) winter poem from Without Title

Wild Clematis in Winter

Old traveller's joy appears like naked thorn blossom
as we speed citywards through blurry detail –
wild clematis' springing false bloom of seed pods,
the earth lying shotten, the sun shrouded off-white,
wet ferns ripped bare, flat as fishes' backbones,
with the embankment grass frost-hacked and hackled,
wastage, seepage, showing up everywhere,
in this blanched apparition.

['Shotten' is an archaic adjective applied to fish, particularly herring, that have spawned. By extension, spent, done for, worn out. Fish imagery recurs in the following line, which suggests the discarded backbones of herrings.]