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10950697_10153076729134664_1858964010029395326_oFor once I actually got to an exhibition close to its opening date rather than turning up just as it’s about to shut down, but John Singer Sargent has always been one of my favourite painters and I wanted to get there as soon as I could. So yesterday, on a sunny Sunday afternoon and undaunted by no trains running on our line due to planned engineering works we braved alternative means of transport (OK, the bus and tube) to get to the NPG.

I was particularly interested in this selection of Sargent’s work because of its focus – Portraits of Artists and Friends – so we weren’t looking at the society portraits for which he became renowned but works, commissioned and otherwise, of other artists in a variety of fields from painting to theatre to music to literature. It was a wonderful chance to see paintings I’d seen rarely or on through reproductions, and it was a real delight. I would have lingered s bit longer but the exhibition was packed and it was also *whispers* a bit warm in the galleries but I may very well go back again to savour my favourites, especially the magnificent Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth.

I don’t have much in print form about Sargent (though quite a good  selection of postcards), apart from the following:

  • Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends which we bought in the gallery shop and which does not break the book buying embargo as (a) it was a joint purchase with the Book God and (b) I consider it to be a catalogue, albeit an enormous hardback one (I know that’s a rationalisation but as Jeff Goldblum says in The Big Chill “I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalisations”);
  • Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davies which tells the story of the scandal around one of his most famous portraits and which sadly I read before I started this blog and don’t really remember what I thought of it;
  • John Singer Sargent: His Portrait by Stanley Olson which is unread in the stacks somewhere but about to be rediscovered (though sadly doesn’t seem to be available any longer);
  • Sargent: Portrait Drawings showing drawings in pencil, charcoal and pastels and just beautiful.

Oh and before we went to the exhibition we had a peep at The Real Tudors, a fine collection of portraits in a free display, brought together in advance of an extended exhibition in Paris. The fact that Wolf Hall has been on stage recently and currently on TV made this very popular as well. Much to enjoy.

IMG_0259On Saturday the Book God and I made a second attempt to visit the British Library to view their Gothic exhibition (we failed earlier in the month as I had been unwell). I was very keen to see this because (of course) I love all things Gothic but also because we’d seen a number of the supporting TV programmes on BBC4 and our interest had been piqued. (I love that word and should definitely try to use it more!)

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination covers the period from the 1790s (lots of Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill which, despite it only being about five stops along the railway from us I have yet to visit) to the present day through a wonderful range of books, manuscripts, illustrations and other artefacts. There are also some fabulous film clips playing in the background – Boris as Frankenstein’s Creature, Lady Dedlock from Bleak House, The Wicker Man, The Innocents – and interviews with modern figures such as Neil Gaiman (talking about Coraline).

Much to look at and enjoy. Wonderful selection of related material in the exhibition shop; I can’t decide whether I am appalled or pleased that I already had so many of the books on sale on my shelves at home, but I did nobble the exhibition catalogue and some lovely postcards.

IMG_0258Earlier this week I took a day off to do some pre-Christmas stuff, meeting a friend for lunch in Covent Garden and then meeting another friend (MargaRita, Queen of Speed, a friend of the Bride’s blog, previously mentioned here) for drinks at the splendid St Pancras Hotel. In between I spent a few hours around Piccadilly, mostly shopping but also finally getting round to doing something I’ve talked about in previous years – visiting the Chris Beetles Gallery to view their annual exhibition of illustration.

The Illustrators: The British Art of Illustration 1800-2014 is a feast for the eyes, exhibiting original works by many of the greats – Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham, Heath Robinson, Ronald Searle (those are just some of my favourites) – as well as artists less well known (at least to me). The walls are crammed with these wonderful pieces of art, all for sale. Sadly, much as I would have loved to I couldn’t quite put my hands on the £17,500 for Dulac’s Asenath from 1907, let alone the £250,000 for Rackham’s The Fairies Are Exquisite Dancers from Peter Pan (1906). A girl can dream though.

So I made do with a copy of the exhibition catalogue which is a beautiful thing in itself.

There was also a fantastic exhibition of Quentin Blake illustrations and some original drawings for Paddington, any of which would have looked very nice framed on my study wall.

A lovely way to spend a winter’s afternoon.

Girl in a Green GownEarlier this year I enjoyed watching a series on BBC4 about Flemish painting written and presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon. One of the paintings featured was the Arnolfini portrait by Jan van Eyck, one of the most recognisable pictures in the world, and a firm favourite of mine. A few days later I happened to be in King’s Cross station and spotted Carola Hicks’ Girl in a Green Gown: the history and mystery of the Arnolfini portrait and just had to buy it.

I’m so glad that I did.

What I hadn’t realised is that, unusually for a painting this old, its provenance can be tracked from the date it was painted right up until it became part of the collection in the National Gallery in the 1840s. What makes this book so fascinating is that it alternates the stories of the various owners (including one of my favourite historical figures, Philip II of Spain) with various detailed aspects of the picture itself – the mirror, the clothes, the chandelier, the dog etc. – explaining both the symbolism and the technical skills involved.

There is heaps of information in this book but it’s presented in a light and engaging way which certainly held my interest and had me looking up further information elsewhere. there is also a fascinating chapter on how perceptions of the picture have changed over time and how it has ben adopted and adapted for satirical and advertising purposes among others.

Sadly, Carola Hicks died from complications relating to cancer before she had put the finishing touches to the book, but her notes and amendments were incorporated by her husband so that her work could be published. I’m so glad he was able to do so because this is just a delight and if you are at all interested in art you should seek this one out.

About time for another National Gallery visit I think!

411rrTAc5tL._SS160_I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, I think people like what they like and should celebrate that, but if I did have a guilty pleasure it would be fashion. So having missed the exhibition of ballgowns at the Victoria & Albert Museum I was really keen to get a hold of the catalogue from the London Library so I could feast my eyes on the wonderful dresses.

The book is of course visually stunning but the articles and background information were just as fascinating. My favourite quote is about the peculiarities of the British couture client as experienced by John Cavanagh in the 50s and 60s:

One titled client chose a dress from his collection and requested that her own fabric be used: some eighteenth century golden-yellow Chinese embroidered wall hangings then arrived a the atelier. Another client would choose several designs and then have fabric samples sent to her home to ensure she didn’t clash with her furnishings.

Designing around heirloom jewellery was also often required, and once a designer had to match a particular shade of satin to “a set of aquamarines the size of gobstoppers”.

How the other half lived! Green with envy.

Despite a TBR list that is in danger of constituting a library in its own right I haven’t stopped buying books, although I’m about to enter the pre-Christmas moratorium where the Book God and I swap our wish lists and sit on our hands until Santa has been.

And in advance of that looming date I really have been unbelievably bad on the purchasing front:

  • The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse – “It’s 1928. Freddie Watson is still giving for his brother, lost in the Great War. Driving through the foothills of the French Pyrenees, his car spins off the road in a snowstorm. Freddie takes refuge in an isolated village and there…..” I have her two previous books but haven’t read them yet, and this looks like it might be fun (and is far less chunky than the others)
  • Nancy Mitford: The Biography by Harold Acton – “This intimate biography draws a witty, real-life portrait of Nancy, based on the letters she intended to use for her autobiography…….” Sparkling and irresistible, apparently, and totally part of my current obsession with all things Mitford.
  • Changeless and Blameless by Gail Carriger – novels of vampires, werewolves, dirigibles and afternoon tea…… Again I have the first one in this series about Alexia Tarabotti but haven’t read it, so this is a bit of a chance, I suppose (what if I hate it??).
  • Blue Eyed Boy by Joanne Harris – “Once there was a widow with three sons, and their names were Black, Brown and Blue. Black was the eldest; moody and aggressive. Brown was the middle child; timid and dull. But Blue was his mother’s favourite. And he was a murderer.” Couldn’t resist it.
  • Sourland by Joyce Carol Oates – it’s a new book of short stories by the great JCO so of course I was going to get it.
  • Dreadnought by Cherie Priest – the sequel to Boneshaker which I got for Christmas (I think, may have been my birthday, too close to call) and still haven’t read. But I feel that I’m going to enjoy it when I get there.
  • Plain Kate by Erin Bow – I saw this on another blog but can’t remember whose (sorry); loved the cover and bought on impulse when in Forbidden Planet with Silvery Dude just after Hallowe’en (I bought The Unwritten 2 at the same time)
  • Decca edited by Peter Y Sussman – see Nancy above. I’m sure I’ll grow out of this at some point….
  • Coco Chanel by Justine Picardie – there was absolutely no way that once I’d got my hands on a copy I would be able to walk out of the bookshop without it. It’s important to recognise one’s limitations….
  • Tamara de Lempicka by Laura Claridge – “Born in 1899 to Russian aristocrats, Tamara de Lempicka escaped the Bolsheviks by exchanging her body for freedom, dramatically beginning a sexual career that included most of the influential men and women she painted.” Irresistible.

I always find it difficult to review a biography; I think if you are really going to do it justice you must have some understanding of the subject at hand, and by that I mean the substance of the person’s life. In this case we are talking about Duncan Grant, Bloomsbury figure and a major artist of the 20th century. And this is where I have to declare that although I know quite a lot about Bloomsbury (a mild obsession since picking up my first Virginia Woolf novel when I was a student) but not very much at all about the art world, which is what made this such a fascinating read.

So because of the reading I had done before I knew roughly where Grant fitted in terms of time and style, and his life does cover a period of significant change n the art world – as it says in the blurb, we are talking about a life that spanned Alma-Tadema to Gilbert & George. What I don’t know anything about are the technical aspects of painting, and although I’m sure I missed a great deal of the significance of the technical discussions I certainly didn’t feel horribly left behind, or indeed talked-down to.

Of course when it comes to a member of Bloomsbury then the private life is bound to be absolutely fascinating and that is very much the case here as you would expect. Again I knew a lot about Grant up to the point of Vanessa Bell’s death but afterwards was a bit murky, and the biography was very revealing about his family life and wider circle, his passions and friendships.

So, all in all a very worthwhile and absorbing read, with a great deal of information being passed on but never feeling that the reader is being talked at.

This was my first read for the Art History Reading Challenge.

So I’ve been talking recently about my reading slump, and several people suggested that I needed to be reading more than one book at a time (I have tended to be very traditional and have no more than two, three at most, books on the go); that way I can switch as my mood takes me.

That may seem very obvious to many of you, but let’s note for the record here that one person’s obvious is usually my “jings, why didn’t I think of that?”

So I have thrown myself into this with gusto, and am currently at various stages of reading the pile at you see here:

  • Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock – a planned read for the Once Upon a Time challenge, this is a sequel to the equally excellent Mythago Wood
  • Making Money by Terry Pratchett – will confess that I’m stalled with this one, I should be loving it but am finding it difficult to pick up again – another planned read for Once Upon a Time
  • The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd – recommended by the Silvery Dude and only started late last night – creepy
  • The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell – because I’m in a bit of a non-fiction phase and I keep on meaning to read this
  • Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk – as recommended by the Book God after an excellent lecture on engaging with China which we attended at the British Museum
  • Classic Crimes by William Roughead – what it says on the tin
  • The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks – vaguely unsettling what to do if they were real guide-book
  • The Virago Book of the Joy of Shopping, edited by Jill Foulston – which called out to me by name when shopping in Blackwell’s on the Charing Cross Road for a present for Silvery Dude
  • Duncan Grant by Frances Spalding – a Bloomsbury fix for the Art History Reading Challenge

And I might even finish some of these!

So I signed up for this last year, read one book that wasn’t even on my reading list, and then it all fell to pieces. However, I’m determined to have another punt at a subject I’m really interested in (and nearly studied after I left university). And it’s the same reading list as last time…

  • Duncan Grant: A Biography by Frances Spalding
  • The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painter and Poet by Jan Marsh
  • Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography by Matthew Sturgis
  • William and Lucy: The Other Rossettis by Angela Thirlwell
  • The Holland Park Circle: Artists and Victorian Society by Caroline Dakers

Which puts me in the Fascinated category, so let’s see how that works out.

flora-symbolica_-flowers-in-pr180_fSo I’ve been watching Jeremy Paxman’s series on Victorian painting on the BBC, and obviously the pre-Raphaelites feature quite a bit, and I haven’t started any of my reading for the Art History challenge, and the Book God asked me a question about flowers (I think, may have imagined that) so I toodled off and picked this up from the bookshelf. Just to dip into you understand…..

Some time later I had read it from cover to cover; not a huge book but a lovely selection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings featuring flowers and a page on each one explaining what the various plants actually mean.

Interesting diversion into the language of flowers; there wasn’t just one dictionary of meanings apparently, and many a young man had to cope with the tears that ensued from a different interpretation of the bouquet he’d just presented.

The reproductions are lovely and the text interesting. And in case you are wondering, the cover is Rossetti’s “La Ghirlandata”, painted in the 1870s, and the flowers it includes are honeysuckle (affectionate devotion though Rossetti saw it as a symbol of sexual attraction); pink roses (the sexual attraction thing again as they are at their full bloom) and surprisingly monkshood (approach of a dangerous foe) – though William Rossetti thought his brother meant to paint larkspur (an emblem of lightness and levity). So even great artists get it wrong sometimes too.

This is my first read for the Art History Reading Challenge.

Bride of the Book God

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Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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March 2023