Thursday, 15 April 2021


This haunting double portrait is by Arshile Gorky, the Armenian-American painter who is best known as one of the pioneers of abstract expressionism. Gorky was born on this day in 1904, or maybe 1903 or 1902 – he was vague about the year – in a village in Armenia, then part of the Ottoman empire. His father emigrated to America to escape the draft, leaving his family behind, and a few years later, in 1915, Arshile (then known by his birth name, Vostanik Manouog Adolan) and his mother fled the Armenian genocide, escaping into Russian-controlled territory. In the terrible aftermath, his mother died of starvation in Yerevan in 1919.
The double portrait is of The Artist and His Mother. No wonder it is so haunting...

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Following a Trail

I'm reading, for reasons vaguely connected with something I'm planning to write, The Private Life of Mrs Siddons by Naomi Royde-Smith. Published in 1933, this is a product of that expansive period when (following the example of A.J.A. Symons, among others) biography became something much more than a dutifully exhaustive chronicle of the known facts of a life, and developed into an art form in itself, and a rich and various one for which there was an eager, educated public. 'The plan of this book,' says Miss Royde-Smith at the outset, 'is that of the full-length and ceremonial portraits of the late eighteenth century, the greatest period of English painting till our own day [really?], and the period during which Mrs Siddons lived and was actually painted by Stuart, Hamilton, Romney, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Lawrence and other less important artists.' The author begins by assembling her materials, then painting in the background, then adding some 'cloudy symbols', and finally the sitter herself. 
  Sarah Kemble (Siddons to be) was the granddaughter of John Ward, manager of a troupe of travelling players, whose daughter had married an aspiring actor, Roger Kemble. Sarah's brother, John Philip Kemble, was to become, like her, one of the leading actors of their time. The Kemble family were a big presence in Hereford, where Roger Kemble was born and spent his first 30 years – and it was in Hereford also that another great actor was born: David Garrick (whose father, I learn, was a Huguenot called Garric). His family moved, not long after his birth, to Lichfield, where he attended Lichfield grammar school.
  Where is all this leading, you may ask? Actually it's leading to Bromley, which just goes to show what can happen when you follow a trail of biographical associations.... After leaving the grammar school in Lichfield, David Garrick enrolled at Edial Hall, a small (very small) private school that had been set up by Samuel Johnson, son of a Lichfield bookseller, and his wife Elizabeth ('Tetty'). Elizabeth, some 21 years older than her husband, had invested her dowry of £600 in the school, but it soon failed. Johnson and Garrick, who were now fast friends, headed for London, where Tetty duly followed. Later in life, she was in poor health and seems to have become addicted to alcohol and opiates, but her husband loved her devoutly and grieved for her all his life. 'I tried to compose myself,' he wrote in his diary on an anniversary of her death, 'but slept unquietly. I rose, took tea, and prayed for resolution and perseverance. Thought on Tetty, poor dear Tetty, with my eyes full.' 
  When Mrs Johnson died, she was buried in, of all places, Bromley, at the church of St Peter and St Paul. The old church was nearly destroyed by wartime bombing and was rebuilt in the 1950s – but Elizabeth Johnson's memorial stone, inscribed with her husband's heartfelt Latin epitaph ('formosae, cultae, ingeniosae, piae' etc.) survived, and can still be seen in the church. If I ever find myself in Bromley, I shall seek it out... 

Monday, 12 April 2021

History is wasted on me

 So today is the 60th anniversary of the first manned space flight – the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's single orbit of the Earth. I would have been in my last year of primary school at the time, and I have only the vaguest memory of the event, which I think I found mildly exciting, if, like so much else in life, rather bewildering. History is wasted on me. 
I think I was more excited by Christopher Cockerell's Hovercraft making its first Channel crossing – this was in the hot summer of 1959 when I was on holiday at Bexhill-on-Sea – and by the unveiling, the same year, of Alec Issigonis's Mini car. These, for some reason, had more impact on my boyhood self. What had no impact at all, as far as I can recall, was the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, by which time I was at grammar school and should have been paying more attention. The world may have been holding its breath, crossing its fingers, cowering under tables in expectation of the Big One, but this boy's soul was untroubled by a moment's anxiety, and I can't even remember the grown-ups talking about it. There you are – as a witness to history and chronicler of my times I am entirely useless. I seem to have lived through these moments in a state of what Dr Johnson would call 'stark insensibility'. Hey ho. 

Saturday, 10 April 2021

'Spring has got into the wrong year'

 Another cold grey-white morning, as this stop-start spring continues its latest retreat into winter. Philip Larkin seems to have been having similar weather when he wrote this poem, on today's date in 1970, and it was clearly doing nothing to lift his spirits... 

How high they build hospitals!
Lighted cliffs, against dawns
Of days people will die on. 
I can see one from here.

How cold winter keeps
And long, ignoring 
Our need now for kindness.
Spring has got into the wrong year.

How few people are,
Held apart by acres
Of housing, and children
With their shallow violent eyes.

That pay-off line is unduly harsh (and not even accurate – how many children do you know with shallow violent eyes?). However, the middle stanza is fine and, as it happens, a perfect evocation of how things feel as this lockdown drags on and on, 'ignoring our need now for kindness'.
The image of the hospital building as a cliff was to be reused in Larkin's much more substantial poem of 1972, 'The Building' – 'This clean-sliced cliff'. 

More cheeringly, nature, whatever the weather, carries on as near regardless as it can. The trees are coming into leaf ('Like something almost being said'),  blossom abounds, and, in rare moments of sunshine in the past few days, the odd butterfly has ventured forth. I've seen a Holly Blue, a Speckled Wood, a few Small Whites – and, best of all, Orange Tips, the cheeriest of spring butterflies. The male of this species, with his orange-tipped wings, is also among the most amorous. In a vivid passage in his Butterflies of Britain & Ireland, Jeremy Thomas writes: 
'For as long as the sun shines, the male Orange-Tip flutters along hedges, shrubs and bushes in search of a mate. His initial approach is not discriminating, as he investigates any white object, including the Green-Veined Whites that emerge in abundance on most Orange-Tip sites ... Little will stop a young male once he has recognised a young female of his own species, especially if she is a virgin, whereas older females are examined for no more than three seconds. But once a fresh female is detected, he will force his way through the densest foliage, whereupon she, if receptive, signals her readiness by raising her abdomen at right angles for about four seconds, and mating begins. Curiously, the same posture is adopted by older females in an attempt to deter males that are pestering them.'

Thursday, 8 April 2021

William Herbert

 Born on this day in 1580 was William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, one of the numerous Herbert clan, which included the poet George (on a collateral branch) and, centuries later, very distantly and obliquely, the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert – or so he believed. William was one of those Interesting Elizabethans, a man of many parts – nobleman, courtier and politician, founder of Pembroke College, Oxford, holder of a wide range of public offices and honours, and dedicatee of the First Folio, along with his brother Philip, that 'incomparable pair of brethren'. He is also believed by some to be the 'fair youth' of the Sonnets and the 'Mr W.H.', the 'onlie begetter of these sonnets'. One of his lovers, Mary Fitton, has also been suggested as the original of the 'dark lady'. William had an affair with Mary Fitton when he was 20, got her pregnant, admitted paternity but refused to marry her, and was sent to the Fleet prison for a while, where he passed the time writing verse. More interestingly from my particular point of view, he had earlier been urged to marry Elizabeth Carey, granddaughter of the Lord Chamberlain Henry Carey, patron of Shakespeare's company of players. He refused to do so (he seems to have been decidedly averse to matrimony, though he did have one regular marriage, to Mary Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury). This Elizabeth Carey is the remarkable woman whose beautiful monument by Nicholas Stone is in St Dunstan's church, Cranford. I have written about her and her monument on this blog, and also, of course, in this book.   

Wednesday, 7 April 2021


 Sad to hear that the actor Paul Ritter has died, and at the early age of 54. He was one of those versatile, accomplished performers who do great work on stage and screen but never become stars – he probably wouldn't have wanted to be one anyway. He was a brilliant Pistol in The Hollow Crown, the BBC's adaptation of (some of) Shakespeare's history plays. I think he would have made a great Beckett actor had he lived a little longer. As it was, he found fame in the unlikely setting of a TV sitcom, Robert Popper's Friday Night Dinner, where his performance as Martin Goodman, the imperfectly earthed father of the family, was comedy gold, and will long outlive him. There are a couple of compilations of his greatest Friday Night Dinner moments on YouTube, but you need to watch whole episodes to fully appreciate his characterisation. I believe they can be found on All4 and Netflix.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Over My Shoulder

 Here's a little something to bring good cheer (and a reminder of live music) in these trying times – Max Raabe and the Pallast Orchester performing 'Over My Shoulder':

The original, performed by Jessie Matthews in the musical Evergreen, is, er, something else...

Monday, 5 April 2021

Gertrude Käsebier

 This image caught my browsing eye this morning. I love the lighting, and particularly the energy and movement in it – unusual for photographs of its period (turn of the last century) – and its feeling of intimacy and spontaneity. It's called 'Dancing School' or 'The Dance' and it's a gum bichromate print by Gertrude Käsebier, who was America's leading woman photographer in her day. She was one of the first to earn money by photography, and she encouraged other women to do the same. The emphasis Käsebier, who had a husband and family to support, put on the commercial side of photography led to a falling-out with her former mentor Alfred Stieglitz (who, according to Edward Dahlberg, 'had genius, but he was not a good man'). Below is Käsebier's portrait of Stieglitz, a photograph that looks like an Expressionist painting –

Gertrude Käsebier was known for her domestic interiors and mother-and-child compositions, her striking images of Native Americans, and her portraits. Among her many subjects was an old friend of this blog, the notorious Evelyn Nesbit – 

Sunday, 4 April 2021


 As a change from my favourite painting of the resurrected Christ – Rembrandt's Christ and Mary Magdalen at the Tomb (see past Easters passim) – here is something very different, an austerely beautiful, decidedly Hellenistic take on the subject by Perugino.
   A happy Easter to all who browse here. 

Saturday, 3 April 2021

The Answer?

 This morning I noticed a piece of paper stuck to a lamp post, bearing this simple message, hand-written: 'Humility is the answer.' To which the cynic might respond, 'What's the question?' But if one word, one quality, is to be deemed 'the answer', humility will, I think, serve very well, better than Faith or Hope or even Love. Faith can degenerate into fanaticism, Hope can become blind optimism, and Love – well, all manner of things can go wrong with Love. It is impossible, however, to overdo humility: if you do, it ceases to be humility and becomes something else altogether, as in the 'very 'umble' Uriah Heep.
Humility (usually translated as 'meekness', a word that has unfortunately changed its meaning) is surely central to Jesus's teaching and the example of His life.  From an everyday perspective, humility is an honest assessment of our worth and our place in the scheme of things, a perspective that corrects arrogance, and helps us to realise that we are not the centre of the universe. Marianne Moore recommended as her three cardinal virtues Humility, Concentration (i.e. paying proper attention) and Gusto (i.e. enjoying what is to be enjoyed). Those three together probably are 'the answer', if anything is. And the question is 'What do we most need to live well in the world?' Also, in Miss Moore's view, 'What do we need to write well?'

Friday, 2 April 2021

Good Friday

The Crucifixion is a subject that was in every visual artist's repertoire for centuries. Visually, it's a gift – the image (much sanitised) of the crucified man rising, dead centre, above the carefully composed scene, his suffering transformed already into triumph, his angled head irradiated by a halo, his arms spread as if to embrace all the world and all time to come. Such images of the Crucifixion are painted from the perspective of Easter and Resurrection, not from that of Good Friday, when what was on show was the cruel and humiliating punishment of a criminal, a supposed prophet whose career had ended in the most abject failure. 
  For poets, even the great religious poets, Good Friday has generally been a subject best avoided, or conflated with Easter (one exception is George Herbert's 'The Sacrifice'). But in the 20th century, in the stark light of that century's terrible events, it perhaps became possible to address the Crucifixion in a different way, and Good Friday occasioned one of the Auden's finest poems: 'Nones' from Horae Canonicae . It's quite a long read, but it is well worth the effort...

What we know to be not possible,
    Though time after time foretold
    By wild hermits, by shaman and sybil
    Gibbering in their trances,
    Or revealed to a child in some chance rhyme
    Like will and kill, comes to pass
    Before we realise it: we are surprised
    At the ease and speed of our deed
    And uneasy: It is barely three,
    Mid-afternoon, yet the blood
    Of our sacrifice is already
    Dry on the grass; we are not prepared
    For silence so sudden and so soon;
    The day is too hot, too bright, too still,
    Too ever, the dead remains too nothing.
    What shall we do till nightfall?

    The wind has dropped and we have lost our public.
    The faceless many who always
    Collect when any world is to be wrecked,
    Blown up, burnt down, cracked open,
    Felled, sawn in two, hacked through, torn apart,
    Have all melted away: not one
    Of these who in the shade of walls and trees
    Lie sprawled now, calmly sleeping,
    Harmless as sheep, can remember why
    He shouted or what about
    So loudly in the sunshine this morning;
    All if challenged would reply
    'It was a monster with one red eye,
    A crowd that saw him die, not I.'
    The hangman has gone to wash, the soldiers to eat;
    We are left alone with our feat.

    The Madonna with the green woodpecker,
    The Madonna of the fig-tree,
    The Madonna beside the yellow dam,
    Turn their kind faces from us
    And our projects under construction,
    Look only in one direction,
    Fix their gaze on our completed work:
    Pile-driver, concrete-mixer,
    Crane and pick-axe wait to be used again,
    But how can we repeat this?
    Outliving our act, we stand where we are,
    As disregarded as some
    Discarded artifact of our own,
    Like torn gloves, rusted kettles,
    Abandoned branch-lines, worn lop-sided
    Grindstones buried in nettles.

    This mutilated flesh, our victim,
    Explains too nakedly, too well,
    The spell of the asparagus garden,
    The aim of our chalk-pit game; stamps,
    Birds' eggs are not the same, behind the wonder
    Of tow-paths and sunken lanes,
    Behind the rapture on the spiral stair,
    We shall always now be aware
    Of the deed into which they lead, under
    The mock chase and mock capture,
    The racing and tussling and splashing,
    The panting and the laughter,
    Be listening for the cry and stillness
    To follow after: wherever
    The sun shines, brooks run, books are written,
    There will also be this death.

    Soon cool tramontana will stir the leaves,
    The shops will re-open at four,
    The empty blue bus in the empty pink square
    Fill up and depart: we have time
    To misrepresent, excuse, deny,
    Mythify, use this event
    While, under a hotel bed, in prison,
    Down wrong turnings, its meaning
    Waits for our lives: sooner than we would choose
    Bread will melt, water will burn,
    And the great quell begin, Abaddon
    Set up his triple gallows
    At our seven gates, fat Belial make
    Our wives waltz naked; meanwhile
    It would be best to go home, if we have a home,
    In any case good to rest.

    That our dreaming wills may seem to escape
    This dead calm, wander instead
    On knife edges, on black and white squares,
    Across moss, baize, velvet, boards,
    Over cracks and hillocks, in mazes
    Of string and penitent cones,
    Down granite ramps and damp passages,
    Through gates that will not relatch
    And doors marked Private, pursued by Moors
    And watched by latent robbers,
    To hostile villages at the heads of fjords,
    To dark chateaux where wind sobs
    In the pine-trees and telephones ring,
    Inviting trouble, to a room,
    Lit by one weak bulb, where our Double sits
    Writing and does not look up.

    That, while we are thus away, our own wronged flesh
    May work undisturbed, restoring
    The order we try to destroy, the rhythm
    We spoil out of spite: valves close
    And open exactly, glands secrete,
    Vessels contract and expand
    At the right moment, essential fluids
    Flow to renew exhausted cells,
    Not knowing quite what has happened, but awed
    By death like all the creatures
    Now watching this spot, like the hawk looking down
    Without blinking, the smug hens
    Passing close by in their pecking order,
    The bug whose view is balked by grass.
    Or the deer who shyly from afar
    Peer through chinks in the forest.

For something shorter, knottier and harsher (if you can take any more), there's this – Geoffrey Hill's 'Canticle for Good Friday' –

The cross staggered him. At the cliff-top
Thomas, beneath its burden, stood
While the dulled wood
Spat on the stones each drop
Of deliberate blood.

A clamping, cold-figured day
Thomas (not transfigured) stamped, crouched,
Smelt vinegar and blood. He,
As yet unsearched, unscratched,

And suffered to remain
At such near distance
(A slight miracle might cleanse
His brain
Of all attachments, claw-roots of sense)

In unaccountable darkness moved away,
The strange flesh untouched, carrion-sustenance
Of staunchest love, choicest defiance,
Creation's issue congealing (and one woman's).

(The best thing to do on Good Friday, though, is simply to listen to Bach's St Matthew Passion.)

Thursday, 1 April 2021


 April at last – blossom time – and here are two seasonal images of the suburban demiparadise. Both are by the excellent pastel artist Neal Vaughan, and I have a print of the one below on my staircase. It shows All Saints' church viewed across the East pond.