Friday, 1 July 2022

Sarah Dove

History is a funny old thing,  decades seeping one into another, ‘historical periods’ more porous than borders. Our small house had more pictures than many, largely due to our grandmother, a young widow who brought up two children without benefits. Her one vice was beautiful things, and in the interwar years she haunted auction houses and bought what she could afford. As a result, during the late fifties and throughout the ‘swinging sixties’ and beyond, our walls were covered with Victorian pictures, which coloured my imagination as a child. 

To either side of the kitchen door were these two beauties, pedagogic and slightly exotic.

In similar vein, this small water-painting 


With its country church and the suggestion of a cross in cloud and sun, the beam of light shining upon a man deep in thought. 


But my two favourites were these.

As a very young and simple boy, I assumed there were people still living like this. Rich people—the past merging seamlessly into my present. I didn’t see it then in such high-falutin terms, but imagined myself hiding under the table amidst their buckled shoes and swishing skirts, listening in, and after they’d gone seeing if they’d left any pudding. Later I gave them names: the butler was Mr Varney, the maid with the pudding Sarah. There was a Sir Rodney, a Mr Grove, Verity Sprim, Clara Brown, Lady Totter and little Ada in the red dress who seemed able to sense those looking from outside the picture. 

And here, a girl earnestly feeds pigeons in the courtyard of a country house; seventeenth century perhaps. I named her Sarah Dove and spent hours imagining what lay behind the windows, the lane outside, the countryside beyond. 

Pictures feed the imagination to varying degrees, some not at all: the inoffensive pastel swirls you see in some show homes or those houses where d├ęcor rules and pictures are unobtrusive adjuncts, else making 'a statement.,' They do little for a child, neither feeding the imagination or offering insights into the past.

Friday, 24 June 2022

Brompton Oratory

Brompton Oratory 1880-1884. The second largest Catholic Church in London with a nave wider than that of St Paul’s Cathedral. 

I recently read a wonderful book, Notes from Deep Time by Helen Gordon. In it, she explores the nature of time through the medium of rock, comparing geology with the more shallow timespan of human history. It’s full of mind stretching wonder, but one chapter in particular, ‘Urban Geology,’ sparked an urgent desire to visit Brompton Oratory. 

In the chapter she rhapsodised on the subtle qualities of marble:

 ‘Wine-red Griotte d’Italie against moss-green Connemara marble. Dark green, smoky Verde Alpi serpentinite. Blue Belg, Belge Noir, pale pink Nembro Rosato the colour of an old-fashioned tea rose. Pillars of buttery gold Sienna Breccia, dove-grey Repen Zola, translucent, orange-tinged English alabaster. . .’ it rolled off the tongue. I wanted to read more. I wanted to see it! But until two weeks ago, alI I was able to do was read and imagine. I hope these pictures bring her words to life. 

There was an intensely spiritual atmosphere throughout, the central nave housing more intimate chapels to either side. I drifted ghostlike - okay, more comically furtive perhaps - between pillars so as not to disturb those quiet in prayer. 

More words:

‘ . . .  shining piles of marble and alabaster turned into columns, panels, altars, fonts and sepulchres. Stilled swirls, branching veins, jagged stripes and smoky clouds of colour.'

It reads like Keats on LSD but Keats would also also have appreciated the science behind it,

marble being a by-product of physics and chemistry. Intense heat and pressure on sedimentary limestone allowed a complex ingress of mineral rich waters, creating both colour and pattern. But somehow the science gets lost in the vision unless you make a conscious effort to see it. 

 As the French philosopher Roger Callois argued ‘We find marble beautiful because the marble itself, far older than human civilisation, has taught us what is beautiful. The stones themselves have shaped and guided human aesthetics.’ No doubt Keith Richards will live long enough to do the same. 



Saturday, 18 June 2022

Painting the town red

We spent four nights at the Shepherd’s Bush Hotel on a bustling and vibrant Uxbridge Road. Walking against the stream of pedestrians walking with urgency purposeful strides enroute to the Underground was a far cry from Monmouth and caught you unawares in the morning. Syrians, Iranians, Arabs, Rastas, Lebanese, harassed mums in burkas or hijabs chivvying children to school, all of them  in smart school uniform. 

And when everyone's gone to work, peace—and a promise to treat ourselves to a meal in this restaurant. It promised 'Damascene' food, but the cuisine was that and more and very reasonably priced. Advert over.

As faces streamed past, I caught glimpses of the ancient Sumerian, an ‘Immortal’ from the army of the emperor Darius, faces from the New Testament, all of them overlaid with London stress. The vibe was very much family and work, a thousand and one eateries and green grocers bursting with every kind of exotic fruit. Not the culture of the ‘old Bull and Bush’ but cities change and so do we. 

We were there for a Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery and to see our daughter. In fairness, I opted out of the Raphael Exhibition in favour of meeting up with an old university friend. I’m a mean old soul and begrudged the price, and old friends are cheaper, better value all round. A good friendship transcends politics, perhaps even a Titian.

The National gallery, looking very photogenic this day. My wife's excellent photo 

Speaking of better value, don’t be seduced or ‘guilted out’ by the ‘card-readers’ in the Gallery's foyer. These have replaced the large glass bowls where you were formerly invited dropped in coins or notes. In my view, the National Gallery make sufficient money from their captive audience in need of a drink or refreshments. By the time I reached the till, I was trapped by the queue behind and paid with a smile that gave me toothache. For what was on my tray: two small pecan cakes, a tea and two coffees I could have bought a small Botticelli.

Unless you are there to see something in particular, the secret of walking around an art gallery is not making the mistake of seeing too much and end up with a blur that means nothing. I was more than happy to see one or two pictures—an exaggeration—probably fourteen or fifteen—and then sit in a corner with my kindle. Occasionally, I peopled watched, and people watched me and cast judgement. A thin, middle-aged lady in a deerstalker paused and looked down at m. I might have imagined the sniff. A kindle in the National Gallery. Not even a book. 

No reason for choosing this painting other than that one of the monks bears a startling resemblance to Boris Johnson. Well, he is a catholic now, and the Renaissance church would have suited him down to the ground.

Okay, call me Mr Trivial, but I couldn't get over these two horses grinning at each other as if they've just met at a cocktail party rather than participating in the battle of San Romano in 1432. Lorenzo de Medici loved the painting so much, he stole it from its original owner and installed it in his palace. He clearly had a thing about grinning horses too. 

I've grown so used to medieval artists painting the baby Jesus as a weird little middle-aged man. I appreciate that they were making a theological point ie God is immutable and therefore Christ as the Son of God must be equally immutable hence his features remain unchanging from childhood to death. Got it? Still weird and not a little unsettling. So, after all that you can imagine the startled reaction on turning a corner and seeng this Titian. I't's not just the colour. The baby looks real!

The Holy Family with a Shepherd 1510

My, these look a well fed pair. Even the parrot looks morbidly obese. 

Portrait of Cornelius van Diest and wife wife Lucretia Courtois by Jacob Jordaens. For those who can't be without their symbolism, the dog, parrot and vine symbolise fidelity. Adultery presumably making you thin. 

On first seeing this from a distance, I thought it was a woman exploring her military side, an eighteenth century dominatrix. Disappointment was bitter. It's a Joshua Reynolds of Colonel Tarleton - more familiar to patriotic Americans perhaps. Banastre Tarleton, wearing the cavalry uniform of his 'Tartleton's Green Horse,' fought in the American War of Independence and later became a Liverpool MP where he argued against the abolition of the slave trade. Not only was he on the wrong side twice, he also lost two fingers 

Lord Ribblesdale by Singer. 1902. Riveting for two reasons, Lean and tall, hand on hip and top hat at a rakish angle, he's screaming 'Me! Me! Put me in your next book. Anti-hero, I don't care.' And of course, Ribblesdale Avenue is where I was born. 

A Bellini—the artist, not the cocktail. I was standing at the back of a guided tour, listening in as it were. The sitter is the Doge Leonardo Loredan. All very good. But it was when the guide pointed out that he had two faces, seen if you separate his face with a raised hand. On the one side a distinctly dour expression, on the other a Mona Lisa smile. I waited until everyone had gone and tentatively raised my hand. It was true. You can try it from the privacy of your own living room with no risk of appearing stupid. 

And finally the Victoria and Albert. By this time I was almost losing the will to live. It wasn't just a surfeit of art,  it was also a very hot day. But the V and A was at least cool. 

I was particularly struck by the vivid complexity of this C14th tapestry released to the Treasury by the Duke of Devonshire in lieu of taxes. The tapestry illustrates a bear and a boar hunt. Specially bred hounds were used for both. It was also a very upper class sport where the participants dressed for the occasion. One of the women shown is wearing a miniver lined cloak, which would horrify the anti fur lobby of today. Miniver is  fur derivedfrom the belly of the Baltic squirrel, in this case hundreds of them. I think there was a film called Mrs Miniver but she wasn't a Baltic sqirrell.

If you look closely into the foliage you will see an intricate battle between monsters and men illustrating the eternal conflict between darkness and light. It was likely an altar piece and commissioned by the Benedictine Monastery of St Peter Gloucester in 1107. And in case you were ever in doubt that the Resurrected Christ was an Englishman


Friday, 10 June 2022

Camille Pissarro

My wife, mathematician and art-lover, has opened so many doors in my life, most recently artists, and exhibitions I would never have otherwise gone to. The most recent one was the Pissarro exhibition at the Ashmolean, where I was reminded again how great art, prejudice and mean-minded passion can mix a cocktail of poison. 

Camille Pissarro 1830 – 1903 was born in the Virgin Islands but with his family, re-settled in Paris. From the start, he revealed an independent mind, disappointing his conservative Jewish mother and father  by marrying their non-Jewish maid. It was a wise choice, for her work ethic subsidised his early, precarious artistic career, as well as gifting him eight children. 

The former maid, Julie Vellay and Camille Pissarro

In fairness, Pissarro was equally generous, especially to younger artists such as Degas, Cezanne, Gaugin and Renoir. 

And then everything changed. In 1894 the Dreyfus Affair erupted and split France as bitterly as Brexit or MAGA today. Alfred Dreyfus came from an Alsace Jewish family and became the highest-ranking Jewish artillery officer in the French army. In 1894 he was accused of treason, passing military secrets on to the Germans. Antisemitism exploded, confirming the prejudice that the rootless Jew owed loyalty to no particular country. When it was later discovered the real traitor was Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, an impoverished French nobleman, the fact was covered up to save embarrassment, and Dreyfus was imprisoned on Devil’s Island off the coast of South America. 

The case split France as well as a previously close-knit artistic community. Despite his Jewish background, Pissarro as a radical anarchist, hesitated before leaping to the defence of a wealthy military officer of rank, but when he did so, his commitment was complete along with Monet and the writer Emile Zola. For Pissarro, injustice was injustice.

Some of his oldest friends, Degas, Renoir and Cezanne, took the opposite view, the first two revealing an almost rabid antisemitism. It must have hurt Pissarro profoundly when his old friend Degas crossed the street to avoid talking to him. Renoir went further, denouncing Pissarro’s family as part of "that Jewish race of tenacious cosmopolitans and draft-dodgers who come to France only to make money.” He linked this to Pissarro’s sons who had failed to do military service precisely because of this 'lack of loyalty'. In 1882 Renoir protested against showing his work with Pissarro, arguing that ‘to exhibit with the Jew Pissarro means revolution.’

Camille Pissaro in old age. Self Portrait

Pissarro continued to admire Degas’ work. Degas on the other hand suggested that Pissarro’s art was ignoble. When reminded that he had once praised it, his response was ‘Yes, but that was before the Dreyfus affair.’ 

The elderly Pissarro and family 

Degas was the loser in this, degenerating into an almost mad caricature of the antisemite, but this post is about Camille Pissarro. Below are the paintings that caught my eye, some giving you the illusion you could almost walk into them, else seeing them from a window and wishing you could. 

Landscape near Pointoise.
The eye initially takes you to the rickety fence before catching a glimpse of the hay cart moving in from the edge of the picture. This is one of Edgar Degas' favourite pictures and he continued to own it until his death. Which is ironic

The Pea Stakers Here, realistic toil is replaced by colour and  grace. The women are planting poles to train pea plants, but it looks as though they are dancing.

Village seen through trees A nice medley of green and brown with small patches of brilliant reds and blue. A sense of real homes and a community at work oblivious to anything outside of the frame.

View from My window. Pissarro described it as 'primitive modern' and was distressed when his dealer said it was unsaleable. It reveals the view from the first floor of his house in Eragny

Man sawing wood - Pointoise 

Lucien Pissarro, the eldest and perhaps favourite son. An artist like his father who continued the impressionist tradition. He moved to London permanently in 1890 and died in 1944 having influenced a whole generation of British artists. You feel as though he might turn and smile at you on the moment. 

One of Lucien's impressionist works

"Rodo" Pissarro's fourth son aged four or five. Pissarro catches the nervous smile.

One of the nicest experiences at the exhibition was seeing how a group of thirty junior school pupils reacted to him. I inwardly groaned when they entered en masse , but within ten minutes they had split into groups of three and were studying each painting, engrossed and discussing what they saw in them. After a time they sat and sketched their favourite painting. The old man looking down at them would have been as pleased as punch. Degas, perhaps less so.

Thursday, 2 June 2022

And books which told me everything about wasps, except why

“I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae (parasite wasp) with the express intention of their feeding on caterpillars.  (Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol1)


I once tried to get rid of a wasps’ nest in our garden by sneaking up on it with a long stick and thwacking it hard. The plan was to do it unobserved from behind a bush and walk briskly away. With an innocent air. Whistling maybe. It didn’t quite work that way and I barely escaped. I was thinking of that, listening to a review of Seirian Sumner’s new book Endless forms, grateful that God had not made me a caterpillar.

Seirian Sumners refers to the wasp as a ‘sweet killing machine’ and lavishes praise  on its ingenuity in securing prey. The jewel wasp can turn a cockroach into a zombie helplessly guided into its nest, where it is eaten alive by newly hatched wasps. Parasite wasps lay their eggs inside caterpillars, which carry on, unaware they’ve been injected and are being eaten from the inside.  It’s like a bad Sci Fi movie

A bird feeds the jostling beaks of its young, and we think how cute without thinking much about the worm. But the wasp? In Sumner’s view, wasps get a bad rap.  Bees sting, and people occasionally die, but they are tolerated – even revered because of their perceived economic value, beeswax and honey, and as natural pollinators. The wasp’s value is less obvious than their sting.

Sumner puts bees in their evolutionary place as ‘just wasps who have forgotten how to hunt.”  Wasps, she points out are carnivores so an essential part of the eco system, a form of natural pest control. Without wasps we would be over-run with spiders, greenery stripped by caterpillars. 

We most often see social wasps at picnics. Some picnickers are as ingenious as wasps when it comes to killing them. They boast of leaving jugs of sugared water or orange juice (laced with vinegar to deter the sainted bee) The wasps are drowned as an inconvenience as we continue to chew the flesh of once living creatures. 

These are the wasps we notice, not the solitary hunters, the parasite wasp. But then we aren’t farmers in Brazil or Zambezi.  There, the parasite wasp is bred as an ‘insecticide’ and released into the fields at just the right time. 

‘And books which told me everything about wasps, except why.” Dylan Thomas should have looked farther afield. And we should have more humility.

According to legend a Han dynasty eunuch, Cai Lun, was lazing under a tree when he observed a wasp scraping bark and chewing it to a paste before applying it onto its nest. Curious, Cai Lun followed suit and thus discovered paper. 

Again, wasps have been around longer than us, achieving sociality 250 million years before humanity emerged blinking from the dinosaur’s shadow. Wasps can also recognise human faces as well as one another’s. I’ve yet to recognise the face of a wasp. I sometimes have trouble with humans. 

So, wasps have their place but caution is good too:

“The serpent, the king, the tiger, the stinging wasp, the small child, the dog owned by other people, and the fool: these seven ought not to be awakened from sleep,” Chanakya 350 –383 BC