Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Sloe Decline

Out walking today, I noticed that there were hardly any viable sloes on the blackthorn bushes. What fruit there was looked shrivelled, leathery and, well, as good as dead. I'd noticed the same thing, to a lesser extent, in Derbyshire and in my local nature reserve (where I had that memorable encounter with a Brown Hairstreak, whose food plant is blackthorn). What is going on? I had a look online, and it's not good news - cool wet weather at the wrong time of the blackthorn year has encouraged a fungal infection known colloquially as 'plum pocket' to strike, with dire effects on the fruit (read all about it here). And this was the year I was going to try my hand at making sloe gin. Ah well...

Tuesday, 25 October 2016


Above, for your viewing pleasure, is La Ferté by Richard Parkes Bonington, a small but expansive and light-filled watercolour that hangs in the National Gallery. Bonington - born on this day in 1802 - was an artist almost too gifted for his own good: his prodigious technical facility led him to produce too much and spread himself too thinly, to the detriment of his later reputation. He was a reliably brilliant landscape and topographical painter, who was equally adept at watercolour and oil (and his own hybrid medium of watercolour mixed with gouache and gum).
 English-born (in Nottinghamshire), Bonington moved with his family to France at the age of 14, and was soon establishing himself as an artist to watch. Oddly, he learnt the English watercolour technique (à la Girtin) from a French teacher, and that technique was to be his great gift to French art. The French, notably Delacroix, rated him highly from the start, and he won a gold medal at the Paris Salon at the age of 22. Sadly, he died of tuberculosis just four years later.
 After his death, Delacroix wrote that 'no one in the modern school, and perhaps even before, has possessed that lightness of touch which, especially in watercolours, makes his work a kind of diamond that flatters and ravishes the eye...' That diamond-like quality, and that wonderful lightness of touch, are gloriously evident in La Ferté . Next time you're in the National Gallery, do seek it out.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Wows Unavoidable: The Montagu Monuments

Here's a coincidence and a half. When I was in the V&A the other day, making my way to the Opus Anglicanum exhibition [see below], I spotted a couple of small-scale models for church monuments by Roubiliac. They looked interesting, and I made a mental note of the monuments' whereabouts, in a place called Warkton in Northamptonshire. The next day, my Derbyshire cousin (who knew nothing of this brief encounter in the V&A) forwarded to me an account of a restoration project that had been sent to her by a friend with an interest in such things. It was the restoration of the Roubiliac monuments and two others, all to members of the Montagu family, in the church of St Edmund, Warkton.
 Clearly this was a sign, so on Saturday the cousin and I duly set off across three county boundaries to see for ourselves these remarkable monuments in their newly restored condition. They occupy the custom-built chancel of the parish church of a small, pretty (and publess) village northeast of Kettering, where they look entirely out of place, fabulously grandiose - and utterly stunning. There is no other word for the concussing impact of all that sparkling white marble, flooded in clear light from the huge east window. Involuntary 'Wow!'s are unavoidable. In art-historical terms, this is a collection of monuments of international importance, and there is nothing else like it in any English church.
 The two Roubiliac monuments whose models I had seen are to John, 2nd Duke of Montagu (d.1749), and Lady Mary Churchill, Duchess of Montagu (d.1751). Lady Mary is figured in the first monument as the grieving widow, her anguished face upturned to a medallion portrait of the Duke.
The pose is, of course, mannered, but the carving of the dress, the right hand and the Duke's various honours laid out for all to see is quite exquisite.
To the right of the monument, the figure of Charity holds up the medallion portrait of the great man, while one of three children/putti (possibly representing the Montagus' three lost children) sheds a tear. Spilling out of the body of the monument are cannon and shot and other martial items emblematic of Montagu's role as the 18th-century equivalent of Minister of Defence.
 The other Roubiliac monument is every bit as much a bravura display of the sculptor's art, but is made to a rather more artificial scheme. The muse Clotho spins out the thread of life, only for it to be cut by the shears of Atropos (her left hand resting on a skull, along with Clotho's right foot), to the horror of an onlooking Lachesis. Meanwhile two putti are busy adorning Mary's memorial urn.

As if these two stunning monuments were not enough, there's a third, equally brilliant but in a different manner, by another expatriate foreigner, the Dutchman Peter Mathias Van Gelder. He worked with Robert Adam, and it shows in the design of the niche in which the monument stands, and in the neoclassical style of the sculpture. It commemorates Lady Mary Montagu, Duchess of Montagu, and represents her care for distressed women, widows and orphans. The figures are quite beautifully realised, especially the angel who bends over the grieving woman and points heavenward.

The fourth and latest memorial of the quartet, sculpted by the Scotsman Thomas Campbell, is the simplest in design and the least impressive in effect - an anticlimax after the others, but it hardly matters. The Montagu monuments are a national treasure, a wonder of England. If you find yourself anywhere nearby, make your way to Warkton and be amazed (but telephone the churchwarden first, as the church is often closed in the winter months).
 What the Montagu monuments lack - apart from Christian content (only present in the last) - is true emotional impact, a real sense of grief. The 18th century was not too strong on this aspect of monumental art, but the Victorian period certainly was, and a monument from the 1850s that we came across in the little Derbyshire church of St Katherine, Rowsley (neo-Norman, by Salvin junior) was genuinely moving as well as being beautifully sculpted. It commemorates Lady John Manners and her daughter, who died soon after birth, followed within a fortnight by her mother. The work of a Scottish sculptor, William Calder Marshall, it deserves to be better known.

Friday, 21 October 2016


I am up in Derbyshire just now (what, again? Yes, again). But meanwhile a piece by me about Sir John Soane's Museum is up on the website of Pooky, interiors and lighting mavens extraordinaire.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016


Your starter for ten. What do all these words have in common?

ambidextrous, antediluvian, analogous, approximate, ascetic, anomalous,
carnivorous, coexistence, coma, compensate, computer, cryptography, cylindrical,
disruption, electricity, exhaustion, ferocious, follicle, generator, gymnastic,
hallucination, herbaceous, holocaust, insecurity, indigenous, jocularity,
literary, locomotion, medical, migrant, mucous, prairie, prostate, polarity,
precocious, pubescent, 
suicide, therapeutic, ulterior, ultimate, veterinarian.

Rather amazingly, every one of them was coined by Sir Thomas Browne, who was born on this day in 1605 and died, with exemplary symmetry, on the same day in 1682. Browne has, indeed, a total of 775 entries in the OED for first use of a word - not all of them as useful, or as lasting, as those above. Even if he had not written his great works - Hydriotaphia (Urn Burial), Religio Medici and the vast and strange Pseudodoxia Epidemica (Vulgar Errors) - he would have earned some fame in the world of words.
Sir Thomas was also, very probably, the first man to say 'I am the happiest man alive.' And, from what we know of his life and character and can adduce from his portrait, it seems likely to have been true.

Monday, 17 October 2016

English Beauty

Today I thought I'd drop in on the V&A to take a look at the Opus Anglicanum exhibition.
 Opus Anglicanum - English work - is the name given to the extraordinarily high-quality embroidery that was produced in this country from the 12th to the 15th century and was in demand all over Europe and beyond. I wasn't expecting this exhibition to detain me long, but I thought I'd go along as there's not likely to be another on such a scale for many years - these pieces are extremely delicate and rare and seldom allowed to travel. As things turned out, I spent the best part of an hour and half exploring Opus Anglicanum.
 The thing is, these pieces - especially the church vestments - are just so beautiful. In design, drawing, colour and composition they are way beyond anything being done in painting, at least in this country - and it is all achieved with fantastically delicate and intricate stitching of coloured silks and gold and silver thread. The first exhibit you see, the Bologna Cope, is an absolute stunner, and in a wonderful state of preservation, considering it's 700 years old. Each panel is a little masterpiece, every detail is full of life (that's an incidental angel below) - it's altogether astonishing. And there is  more to come, of comparable quality - copes, chasubles, orphreys, dalmatics (it pays to increase your word power...). There's a cope from the Vatican, no less, another from Toledo, there's an extraordinarily beautiful Tree of Jesse from Lyon, there's even English work from as far afield as Iceland.
However closely I examined these glorious pieces I could hardly believe that such effects had been created with nothing more that stitches in cloth. The explanatory labels, with their talk of underside couching, split stitch and stem stitch, did little to enlighten me, and even a video installation showing the stitches being made was not much help. The whole thing seems all but miraculous. It's a wonderful exhibition.
 When I eventually tottered out - through the gift shop, inevitably - I was immediately hit by a blast of Whiter Shade of Pale, a symptom of the V&A's concurrent Sixties exhibition, You Say You Want a Revolution? Not me, thanks.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

From the Stacks to the Stage

Jean Alexander, the great character actress who played Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street for many years, has died, just three days after her 90th birthday. I was delighted to learn that, before she took up acting, Jean Alexander was a librarian, and she continued to be an active supporter of public libraries all her life. A librarian going into showbiz! That doesn't often happen, though I did once meet Caron Wheeler (later of Soul II Soul) when she was a Saturday library assistant. She didn't look like a career librarian to me...
 Plenty of writers were also librarians, of course - Philip Larkin, Anne Tyler, Angus Wilson, etc - but have there been any actors, other than Jean Alexander, who began as librarians? Don't say Elizabeth Taylor - it was the other one, the writer. Over to you, Dave Lull?