Monday, 24 December 2012

First Plantings 2

From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
My great difficulty then, a difficulty that in a certain degree has continued to this day, was to get the old trees about us cut back and thinned out.  Shade, in a climate such as Tuscany, where the hot summer is so prolonged, is of great value, but we were buried among old trees and foliage; they literally ate all the air; and their old roots were a terrible nuisance.  The owner was absolutely devoid of any gardening instincts, but he had a horror of anything being cut away, and his gardeners were always in league to prevent anything that I wanted being carried out.
However, by dint of great energy, I did succeed in persuading the secretary to consent to clearing out the shrubbery, on our side of the avenue, to a depth of about seven feet, which gave us a good border, running down the whole length of the garden.
Just as the villa gardeners had finished this work, I heard of a good gardener, who was available for a job, and engaged him temporarily to put the place into something like order.   He was with us for nearly three months, when he left Tuscany to take up a permanent post with some of the Borghese family in Rome. Labour is still very cheap in Tuscany, but I could not have afforded a permanent gardener, nor was there enough work for one at that stage of the proceedings, least of all for a man of such qualifications as his; but I thought myself very fortunate in getting him, as so much depends on the way first plantings are done.
The ordinary garden soil in these parts is, as the head of the Botanical Gardens at Hong Kong lately described what he has to do with, “very extraordinary indeed”, and is only good for vines and tea-roses.  Almost everything else must have its own particular compost; good garden soil, such as we should take in England as a matter of course, does not  exist out here; indeed many of the gardens are formed of a few feet of earth on a  foundation of rock.  It is partly owing to this, and partly to the want of water, and also for the convenience of shifting from sun to shade, that so much of the Tuscan gardening consists of plants grown in pots.  In our own case we had not the difficulty of the rock foundation to deal with, for the great distinction of this property is, that it possesses an extent of level ground most unusual in this mountainous region.  But wherever we dug seemed a kind of Monte Testaccio: the most extraordinary deposits of broken crockery, old wine-flasks, stones of all sorts and sizes, - in short everything that ought not to have been in a garden seemed to be there.   The earth was of a sticky yellow substance, though not clay, and was unlike any soil I had ever seen before; but after fifteen years of constant manuring and attention it is now quite possible.  Having no stable, all the manure has to be bought, and that, as well as many other composts, come from a great distance, so that we turn, as much as possible, everything to account.  And it is surprising how much good soil can be got out of such spazzatura as, in England, would go into the dust-bin; all this, as well as the decayed leaves and ordinary garden refuse, are buried in one or two pits dug at the bottom of the garden, and well turned over from time to time; and of course the wood ash, of which we have quantities from the winter’s firing, is of itself a most valuable manure.
One day last year as I was showing my little garden to a great botanical authority he looked at the soil, remarked on its superiority, and said that, with such soil as that, one might grow anything. I wished he had seen it in its original condition!

Sunday, 23 December 2012

First Plantings 1

From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
Two months went by before I was sufficiently free from the plague of work people to have leisure to turn my attention to the out-of-door department.  No doubt, even in civilized England, workmen now-a-days require some supervision; but here, in democratic Tuscany, where the “I am as good as you” spirit prevails, if you leave them alone for ever so short a time, you will find something has been done the direct opposite of what you wished and intended.  Italians are the most conceited people on the face of the earth, and have a very annoying habit of finishing your sentence for you, instead of listening to what  you wish to say, and it is best to wait till they have finished assuring you that they perfectly understand your wishes, before quietly, but very decidedly, requesting them to listen to your explanations instead of favouring  you with theirs.
The English idea that foreign workmen are better “all round” men than us, is a great mistake, and in no country are trades more specialized than in Tuscany, where an upholsterer capable of making up carpets and curtains knows nothing of polishing furniture.  For that a polisher must be called in, and he, in his turn, is quite ignorant of the mysteries of varnishing.  To find a “handy man” in a Tuscan country district is very rare.  We had to buy our experience of this sort of detail; and once, in early days, when I had settled with an upholsterer to polish up the old furniture left in the house, it was  smeared in such a way that it had all to be re-scraped.  The excuse given by the individual was that it was not his trade, and to the further question why in that case had he undertaken the job, the reply was, “that it was necessary to leave something for the others to do”.  This benevolent view did not commend itself to us, and, later on, when this man called to ask if we had no work for him, he was told that his services would not again be required.
We had an excellent cabinet-maker in the house, repairing the old furniture which had been left in it, for about six weeks; this man was quite an exception to the general rule, always came for orders before beginning any job and went carefully into measurements with the Junior Partner. And our Scotch maid was clever at upholstery, but even with these advantages we found it better that one of us should always be at home during these first months, for, so surely as we were both absent, something was done that had to be undone the next day.
But in January I began to think it would be well to take advantage of the magnificent weather to have the ground well trenched and manured.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Strictly Stunners

 Some historical moments have a soap opera’s ongoing appeal and, as Henrietta Garnett remarks in Wives & Stunners, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Bloomsbury Group have become ‘modern mythologies’.  Each has an interrelated, interacting cast-list, whose tales are told and re-told, in narrative, fictional and filmic form, with embellishments, interpretations  and inventions.  They attract scholars and bloggers and followers of a ‘Strictly’ kind, who adopt favourites.
Wives and Stunners focuses on Effie, with her two marriages, Lizzie and Janey’s lovers and husbands, and the tussle between Georgie and Maria Zambaco for possession of Burne-Jones.  The aptly-described ‘sub-plot’ concerning Annie Miller adds occasional diversion but, despite her current champions, Fanny Cornforth is not a contender here.  
With regular bulletins on her wardrobe, the longest section draws on Millais family papers now loaned to Tate Archive to chronicle Effie’s marriage to and escape from Ruskin.   The much-debated question of Lizzie’s pre-marital relations with Rossetti ‘can never be established for certain’ and ‘just because family anecdotes are repeated doesn’t make them necessarily true’.  Indeed.   Henrietta, whose own Bloomsbury ancestry informs her understanding of modern mythology, offers prime acknowledgement to her late uncle Quentin Bell who published A New and Noble School in 1982.
The inimitable footnotes, ranging from a protest that custard powder failed to ignite revolution to conversations with Diana Holman Hunt about the famous PRB coffee-pot being thrown out with rubbish, add sparkle to this latest version of the ever-popular legend.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Finding the Garden 10

From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
The bedrock of the Tuscan character is suspicion; and, while the doors stood open, a piece of old torn wire-netting was placed across the opening, for fear we should presume to enter  and pick their lemons.  Nor was this all; they had always kept their own stock of wine in the cellars beneath the stanzone, and they, their wives, and their children, had  the right to come and pester us at all hours, under pretext of getting out a flask of wine, but in reality to pry about and see what we outside barbarians were up to!  Partly on this account, and also because the avenue gates stood open, there being at that time no porter’s lodge, I put up a wooden gate inside the stone arch.  It was brought home and placed there late one evening, and next morning when the head-gardener presented himself, a barrel of wine on his back, and found this out-work, he dropped the barrel on the ground and – used language.
Later in the day I had a polite note from the secretary, begging me to give this man a key of the gate!  I had foreseen the probability of this request, and had had the gate made keyless, opening by a spring from the inside, so I could truthfully reply that we had not ourselves a key, but if the gardeners would ring the bell, they would at all times be admitted.  This of course they never did, but made tracks through the shrubbery and gave us as much annoyance as possible.
Quite apart from their visitations, the gate was, at that time, an absolute necessity, for we lived mostly with the hall-door standing wide open, and beggars used to walk up the avenue and would not have scrupled to walk into our rooms.
I had several pieces of old English silver standing on shelves in the dining-room, and when we met any friends, it became a regular joke to enquire if the silver had yet been stolen.  In later years a porter’s lodge was built, and the gates kept closed, an immense improvement.  And when out first term of two years had expired, I made it a sine qua non that I should have possession of the stanzone.
A day or two before it was due to pass into our hands I found the two gardeners carefully laying in a supply of wine, and pointed out to them what a foolish proceeding this was, as the wine would spoil by removal; sure enough, when the day came that delivered us from their rule, they represented that this would be the case, and implored me to allow it to remain.  I stood firm, and pointed out that as I was then paying for the use of the stanzone, it was not likely that I should keep it for their use and advantage.
From that time we had peace, to a certain extent, but they have never forgiven us, and they were both men of the worst Italian type, absolutely false, sly and dishonest, and sticking at nothing to serve their own purposes.

There was yet another very unfortunate discovery to be made, and a much more serious one, because practically irremediable: the water supply was very deficient.  I can blame no one, not even myself, for not having seen better after this all-important matter, because when you are shown a large house cistern  and two garden cisterns, it is difficult to realize, if you have never been dependent on rain water only, how extremely uncertain a thing it is in a climate like that of Tuscany.  There was no well or spring on the whole property; the former English owners had made what were practically inexhaustible cisterns at the big villa.  These Italian cisterns are underground brick chambers, and are most costly things to make.  No doubt an Italian family living in our house would have found the water supply sufficient, but for English people requiring daily baths, and with friends frequently visiting them, it was another matter.  With regard to the garden, of course, it was my own affair if I planted it so extensively as to require a larger supply than existed.
Our contract gave us the right of fetching water for the use of the house at all times from the big villa, but not for garden purposes, and we have frequently been obliged to have it brought in barrels from a considerable distance.
It is only experience that  can teach one such things as these. If I were again taking a place in Tuscany, I should now be able to judge if the square métrage of cisterns would suffice for our consumption.
But I think these were the only two blunders we made as regards our contract, and in the work done indoors everything was satisfactory, with the exception that in two of the rooms the stove-pipes were somewhat smaller than was desirable.
There is certainly a Providence watching over stray and forlorn people!

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Finding the Garden 9

 From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
I employed a very good decorator, and the house was stencilled throughout in artistic designs, copied from old Italian brocades.  Although I had a fair knowledge of Italian, my vocabulary naturally did not include such technical terms as the work-people often had occasion to use, and how the whole thing was accomplished remains a surprise to me to this day.  The next step was to have a good stipettajo (a superior carpenter) to repair and put in order all the old furniture left in the house.  This work occupied about six weeks; the Junior Partner joined me in December, and about Christmas such furniture as I had stored in London arrived.  It was only the surplus which our little London house could not accommodate, after our old home was broken up, and many of our possessions were ludicrously out of keeping with their new abode.
There was one beautiful old marquetry bureau we called our letter of credit, as it made such an impression on every foreigner who had occasion to call, and quite established our character for respectability.
In all the subsequent winters we have spent here, I have never seen so beautiful a spell of weather as there was that year. In November the rains came down in quite tropical fashion, but after that we had from eight to ten weeks of clear, brilliant sunshine, from ten a.m to four p.m.  When the sun went down the cold was intense, and of course we had not then reached the stage of peace and comfort that came in after years, and which only long occupation of a house can give.  Our one family male adviser had carefully impressed upon us, in his letters, the advisability of having a formal contract of our tenancy drawn up by an Italian lawyer.  There was a good deal of wrangling over conditions, but I believed everything to be straight and in order, so it was a terrible shock when we discovered that, because no mention had been made in this document of the stanzone, it was not included in the let, but was to remain, as it had always been, in the hands of the villa gardeners.
These worthies were our sworn foes; they had always had possession of the sunny court-yard, with its convenient stone benches for forcing their early bulbs, and were deeply aggrieved at the new order of things. The annoyance that we suffered at their hands in the next two years, is not to be described.  In winter they came about ten a.m. to open the doors of the stanzone, and again in the afternoon at four to close them.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

George Eliot's negligent hair

The long-serving first librarian at the London Library in St James’s Square kept a commonplace book of ‘anecdotes and personal experiences’ from which the Library is posting excerpts on its blogsite.  
Robert Harrison’s anecdotes from 1859 include this pretty accurate pen-portrait of George Eliot: 
Miss Evans, the author of Adam Bede, etc., etc., translator of Strauss’s Life of Jesus, possesses, says Dr. Chapman (of West[minster] Review), one of the most massive intellects of our time. Combe, the physiologist and phrenologist told him (Chapman) that he had never seen a woman’s head indicative of so much power, and very few men’s heads.       She is an agreeable conversationalist, full of knowledge - but her external graces are small and few, coiffure and toilette generally being of the negligent sort.  She was bred a Wesleyan and “turned out of her father’s house on account of her religious opinions or negations, which being of the most advanced school of freethinking make one wonder at the sketch of 'Dinah'.”

Then in 1873 there’s an account of Tennyson going to a magic show:
Dec 4/73 One day last week Tennyson, the laureate went with W. Allingham [the poet],  to see Dr Lynn the conjurer at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. They are both very self-conscious men but dred to show it, thro’ imagining the world’s eye to be always on them.  The Laureate especially is morbidly sensitive about strangers noticing him in any way or drawing attention to him.   Conjurers however know no distinctions, and Lynn, who probably did not know his visitor by sight, walked up to him and asking what he had in his beard, seemed to pull out an egg therefrom, then another from his ear - the poet’s ear! – and to the amazed attention of the whole audience and the author of the “Idylls”.  Fancy his horror and disgust! 

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Maud Sulter & Hector Watson

SEDUCED BY ART, the new show at the National Gallery
has a daft title, given that its thesis is the ways in which
photography in the 19th century and currently has responded to 'fine art'  of the old master variety - just as artists in all media respond and reflect previous work.  The exhibition has not been very well recieved critically, but there are some things in its favour: 
firstly, the juxtaposition of media forces attention on the contrivances involved in both photography and painting - reminding us again for example of the artifice involved in creating/staging/composing  figurative and 'real life' images.  It's more obvious in photography, where the viewer knows that models, sitters, locations, accessories etc must be manoeuvred into place, lighting adjusted, exposures calculated and so on, so seeing paintings alongside makes for heightened awareness of just what, say, Gainsborough was doing when making Mr & Mrs Andrews look as though they are sitting outdoors, on a garden seat, at the edge of a cornfield, when they weren't.

secondly, its  a welcome chance to see the late lamented Maud Sulter's great self-portrait as Calliope, muse of epic poetry and/or eloquence.  In fact, here Sulter was referencing the famous shot of young Sarah Bernhardt by Nadar, not any old master oil, although the profile pose, bare shoulders and rich drapery do roughly invoke many neo-classical depictions of the Muses.

There is another interesting portrait in the exhibition, , the  large-format three-quarter-length image of Hector Stanley Watson, taken in 1994 by Dave Lewis  for a series 'West Indian Ex-Servicemen's and Women's Association.'   It is hung in relation to Goya's half-length oil of the Duke of Wellington, making a rather grand  'old soldier' allusion, but it's a great picture. 

So thanks to National Gallery.

UPDATE JULY 2015    Belatedly,  I've only just learnt of the recent retrospective show of Maud Sulter's work, entitled Passion, held at  Maud Sulter's photographs are concerned with identity and connection.
Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow.
This  is the outcome of a curatorial research project by Deborah Cherry, Professor of Art History at the University of the Arts London, and Deputy Director of TrAIN (Transnational Art and Nation), and artist and curator Ajamu, and the exhibition is a partnership between Street Level Photoworks and Autograph ABP.

Here's a brief excerpt from a review by Leyla Bumbra of the show, which 'focuses on the artist’s identity, her Scottish and Ghanaian heritage and creates analogies between herself and famous women.
'The exhibition humanises those she photographed, and indeed herself, through her self-portraiture. Significantly the women that are represented are the few that made it into the history books, the ones who associated with men as wives and mistresses.  The exhibition successfully initiates a shift towards a reclamation of Sulter’s artistic importance.'

There is a catalogue (crowd-funded) which I'll post details of when I get them.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Gillian Allnutt Portrait of Gwen John

I first met Gillian Allnutt through Lizzie Siddal, when I was researching Lizzie's then fragmentary life story and Gillian was writing 'Lizzie Siddal: Her Journal'.  We had some fun at literary festivals and art galleries with a  joint presentation of poems (by Gillian and Lizzie) pictures (by Lizzie) and biography (by me). 
She has a new collection Indwellings in preparation, which will be published by Bloodaxe  in 2013. It contains several poems inspired by paintings, including one by Gwen John that should be familiar via a few lines from Gillian's poem, which is as spare and still as Gwen's pictures:

the heart's milk wood made welcome
as necessity
as strength of will
as summer in a jamjar on the table.
I'd call the poem a portrait although/because like the painting there's no-one visible in it.

And I've just discovered that one of Gillian's poems was featured by Carol Rumens in the Guardian last week, with an appreciative exposition - see here

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Finding the Garden 8

From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
The few friends I had in the neighbourhood raised a chorus of remonstrances when my projects were unfolded to them.  The house stood very near the high-road on one side, and an Italian friend made his wife write to me to say he felt it his duty to warn me of all the dangers to which we should be exposed; and my banker, when he heard that I intended being my own clerk of the works, exclaimed that for a    signora forestiera to begin on her own account to deal with workmen appeared to him a very poor prospect.  I had offered a quite moderate rent, with the proviso that I would myself do whatever was required inside the house, but stipulated for the entire use of the piece of ground attached to it.  In making this offer I was not aware that that it was precisely the arrangement best suited to the person to whom it was proposed, who hated to be “bothered”, and who would certainly not have undertaken such alterations as I wished to make.
In Italy it is always best to avoid any arrangements with a landlord which provide for his undertaking alterations that the tenant wishes to have done; the result is always unsatisfactory, both in the quality of the work accomplished, and in the friction engendered on both sides.
Of the first of November I took possession of my new residence, but some kind friends insisted on my spending a week with them so as to allow of one or two rooms being put into some sort of order before I commenced what was certainly the roughest time I have ever experienced in my life.  I had my own invaluable Scotch maid, and engaged an excellent Italian woman as bonne à tout faire till I got into order, and, for the next three months, I may say we lived with the work-people.  Partitions were taken down, indeed I narrowly escaped pulling down the main wall of the house.  We were spared this disaster owing to the visit of young Scotch friend, an architect, and have always felt that he deserved a memorial tablet on the wall of the house!  There were no bells, and old Giuseppe, who took a deep interest in our proceedings, could not understand  why one in each room should be deemed necessary.
“Surely” he said “one to every three rooms would suffice.”  During all that fatiguing time, and indeed to the end of his life, he remained our staunch friend, and was always ready to help us in any way he could. I put in two additional windows in the drawing-room, and several open terra-cotta stoves, for there were only two fire-places in the house; and when the brick-layers, masons, and bell-hangers had departed, they were succeeded by the painters.    

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Finding the Garden 7

 From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
The views were enchanting: towards the north we looked up to the highest point of the old Etruscan mother city; eastward were the Vallombrosan hills, and lying down below, veiled in the misty light of the hot June sun, were the domes and spires of Florence, with the blue Apennines rising beyond, towards the far south.  At the head of this park was the back or garden entrance to the large villa, and a sidewalk led from it to the gardens proper, now alas! In a fearful state of “decadence”.
The whole place was a perfect revelation to me. With perhaps the single exception of the royal villa of Quarto, I had never seen, nor have I since ever seen, any place in Tuscany to compare with it.  So great an expanse of level ground is very unusual there, and it was the blending of the English with the Italian element of beauty that gave it so distinctive a character, and so great a charm.  Much of the planting had been done in the far-off days of the English owners.  The back of the large villa was covered with roses and jasmine, and the gardens, though in a pitiable state of neglect, bore traces of what they must once have been when, in the care of English gardeners, and when their mistress herself was often at work in them at five o’clock of a summer morning.
The park quite decided us that here we were going to establish ourselves, looking on the house merely as a place in which to sleep.  We knew enough of the ways of the country to understand that there would be no such restrictions as prevail in England, and that we should practically have the run of the place.   But it was months before matters were arranged.  The owner was abroad; his secretary, with whom all business matters were transacted was ill during a great part of that summer; I was away in the mountains during August, and when I returned and took up the thread of negotiations, so many difficulties had to be overcome that I was several times on the point of throwing up the matter.  I wanted a nine years’ lease, the longest legal term in Tuscany; but this was absolutely declined, and I was unwillingly obliged to content myself with a two years’ agreement.  The secretary  explained that they had never had a permanent tenant there and would like to see how the arrangement worked before committing themselves to a longer period. I felt there was reason in this, but there was so much to be done to the house that it was a great venture for me, and had we been obliged to give it up at the end of two years the loss would have been very great.  Had I been dealing with an Italian we should certainly either have had our rent doubled or been turned out on our improvements; but with an Austrian it was different.  Had I been resident in Tuscany in more recent times, I should have known that it was a matter of no importance to the owner whether the little house as let or not, and I can now never help smiling when I think how supremely ridiculous I must have appeared in many ways during these negotiations. I must have been a trial to the secretary, for all my ideas were of the most precise and British order, and things in Italy are not worked on those lines.  Indeed we had several battles royal, chiefly from want of the gift of tongues; he was a German, speaking no English but only Italian and French, I do not speak German, so that we were both talking in a foreign language.  However, I think I may say that these little differences were all forgotten and forgiven in later years.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

William Morris & The Book

William Morris's last enterprise was the Kelmscott Press, fine printing of books by Caxton and his contemporaries and by Morris and his favourite authors - almost all texts that WM loved for their own sakes.  Over 50 titles in five years made it not a hobby but a business which, guided by quality not cost, aimed to make at least enough profit to continue in production.  I've been reading up on his book-making life for a forthcoming lecture and have concluded that the Kelmscott Press was a serious enterprise rather than a vanity project and that its secondary aim - alongside the making of books that were beautiful as well as useful - was success in a small, craft-based business such as, or as potentially close to, that run by Caxton; and that WM's pleasure lay in planning and managing such production, and proving that there was a market for high-quality, hand-finished items such as his books.

The first lecture is at the University of Bristol, 6.00pm Tuesday 20 November 2012, Great Hall, Wills Memorial Building. Free but booking needed
Followed by a broadly similar performance in memory of Peter Preston at the William Morris Society, 2.15pm Saturday 1 December.   See 

Friday, 2 November 2012

Princes & Puritans

It's becoming a seventeenth-century season.   
In historical order:
The Lost Prince: Henry Stuart, a exhibition triumph at the NPG about a wholly forgotten figure, presented in portraiture with awkward arrogance and royal pride.  Visually, it's about the splendour of Jacobean costume: gold-embroidered silks, filigree lace stand-up collars, pink and purple shoe pompoms, padded sleeves and sumptuous breeches over swashbuckling boots. All the finery that the Puritan preachers assailed.   Henry's first inlaid suit of armour is both splendid and poignant, being for a young teenager.   Henry died in 1612, aged 18.
Making his younger brother Charles heir to the kingdom.
And we all know what happened to him: Howard Brenton's new play 55 Days at Hampstead Theatre needs no historical backstory, but plunges straight into the turbulent conflict between Crown and Country 1648-9 leading to Charles's execution, which nobody wanted, unless perhaps it was Charles (Mike Gattis got up uncannily like the Van Dyck portait) unable to contemplate relinquishing any aspect of his divinely-appointed role. Cromwell and the New Model Army, clad in uniform military black, don't rightly know what to do; at any critical moment they shut their eyes and stab a finger in the bible.  Like a sibylline leaf the random text provides divine guidance.
Which leads neatly to the third piece, Vaughan Williams's opera of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress at the ENO.  Though here staged with mid-20th century costumes and allusions, this is the prime Puritan text, second only to the bible in Dissenting history, adjuring the pious to struggle on through temptation, doubt and despair, renouncing not just the devil and his works but all worldly fortune, fame and pleasure. Though  the vocal lines are a bit churchy for today, VW's orchestration is rich and absorbing and the message only as religious as you wish it to be.  Apollyon is terrific, if rather easy to puncture. The song of the woodcutter's boy (here played as a dinner-lady with soup-trolley)  throws out a vivid allusion to both  Prince Henry and King Charles.
 He that is down need fear no fall, He that is low, no pride

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Celebrating May Morris

the Society of Antiquaries of London has put up a video-plus-ppt recording of my talk on the life and work of May Morris  - with luck accessible via this link

The direct link is:

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Janey Morris in her own words

"I agree heartily with those who consider the early work his best, but I think the same might be said of most men's works there is a freshness an interest in everything a wealth of invention that is seldom seen except in the production of the few first years of manhood, and all this without questioning the sanity of a man, that Gabriel was mad was but too true, no one knows that better than myself, but that his work after 1868 was worthless (as Gosse has the impudence to assert)  I deny --- I don't know why I am writing this to you but I feel that I  want to talk to someone about him.  I am not likely to be in town for a very long time to have any actual talk with you. Jenny is very ill still, I am almost in despair about her."

THE COLLECTED LETTERS OF JANE MORRIS, edited by Frank Sharp and myself, is now published by Boydell & Brewer.    470 pages, containing 570 letters, mostly published for the first time.  Including her strong opinions in favour of Irish Home Rule, and equivocal position on universal suffrage.

"I can't make up my mind about our vote, there is so much to be said on both sides, of course it is absurd that that I should not have a vote while many a drunken working man has one, but then I object to these noisy women having any increased power because they only want to reverse things and spitefully trample on the men.  I want both sexes to have equal rights  when the women are better educated companions and housekeepers."

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Cows in Stroud Green

I've been reading Gillian Tindall's new book on the history of Three Houses, Many Lives (a bit misleading as though many individuals are listed from censuses and registers, none are brought biographically 'to life'). One house - Stapleton Hall at the end of Stroud Green - was for 150 years occupied by farmers and cow-keepers, essentially as a dairy farm, the pastures being in nearby fields. 

 Across the junction is a large Old Dairy, now a pub, built in 1890 by the Friern Manor Dairy Company.  Tindall thinks this was unconnected with the Stapleton Hall farmers, but it is surely likely that the site was a cow-byre, milk-yard and possible dairy, already old when sold to Friern Manor Co. (a large dairy business that had previous connections with Stapleton Hall farm, and was consolidated in 1887). 

What's nice is that between stucco pilasters and brick swags on the exterior wall of their new dairy the new commercial owners commissioned  large sgraffito decorations, showing bucolic scenes and up-to-the-minute views of modern butter-making and suburban milk delivery - giving an illustrated history of agricultural development that also acknowledges the pastoral nostalgia for lost rusticity that accompanied Victorian urbanisation, a thread that runs through Tindall's work. 

It's amazing that after 120 years the seven sgraffito panels are still in place and in relatively good shape despite their main bus-route location. They show milkmaids with grazing cows, old-style delivery with pails and yokes, and the interior of a new hygenic dairy.  No-one seems to know who designed or made the panels, though it ought to be possible to find out.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale

EFB FANS  and others:
A PRE-RAPHAELITE JOURNEY, the exhibition from the Lady Lever Gallery, is transferring to the WATTS GALLERY, SURREY, GU3 1DQ
from 5 FEBRUARY 2013


The Lady Chapel altarpiece by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale mentioned in a previous post, as it's not easy for everyone to reach the Forest of Dean.  A poor photo owing to the dim church interior and light from window above, and the painting is in sore need of conservation.  But it  is a thoughtful representation of generations, showing the three mothers appropriate to a Lady Chapel : Mary & Jesus in centre flanked by St Anne (Mary's mother) with distaff on the right and St Elizabeth (Mary's cousin) with John Baptist on the left. A rose wall or hedge behind all. 

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Finding the Garden 6

 From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
On our second visit the old servant explained to us much that had puzzled us in our first hurried survey: the large villa was an old Medicean structure, and over a side door was an inscription showing that it had originally belonged to some scion of the papal Medici.  In more modern times it had been the country residence of the English minister then at the Court of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany. During his occupation the English arms had been placed over the main entrance, and the avenue we had so much admired had been the high road, thus affording the inmates the joy, so dear to Italians, of seeing all that goes on in the world from their windows.  The English owner, being of a different way of thinking, persuaded the Commune – for a consideration - to carry the road around, thereby cutting into the adjoining podere, and in this way the small villino on the left had been incorporated with the property, with which it originally had no connection.  Some twenty-five or thirty years before the time of which I am writing, the English ambassador of former years, having given up all hope of ever returning to the place, sold it to the present owner, a wealthy Austrian banker, who occupied it during the winter and spring months, but spent the summer at another property in Northern Europe, when the small villino was often let to a temporary tenant.  We were shown over the house, which was of the most solid construction, and much larger than it looked, or indeed than we required. Among the dilapidated furniture it contained  were bits, here and there, that looked strangely homelike, and we found afterwards that, on one occasion, when extensive alterations were being made in the large house, its owners had themselves lived in the smaller one for more than a year, and no doubt furniture had been brought down there at that time, and had been allowed to remain.
I can always tell at a glance whether a house is adaptable or not, and I saw that this one had possibilities.  There were some lemon-plants in the court-yard, beyond which stretched what could only be termed a piece of waste ground.  I demurred at the size of the house, and the old servant obligingly offered to take us through the grounds to look at another villa just outside his master’s property, which was then vacant.
This place did not appeal to us at all, as it looked out on the highroad, on a number of small, poor houses. On the way back, old Giuseppe suddenly turned up the small flight of steps on which my companion had sat down when she lifted up her voice in protest against my intrusive ways: we followed him, and, pushing through the shrubs by a narrow path, we suddenly found ourselves standing in a large park bordered by beautiful old ilexes and fir-trees, with splendid conifers, tulip-trees and catalpas planted here and there.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Finding the Garden 5

 From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
Now I had no reason to suppose there was anything to be gained by walking up that avenue, but something seemed to impel me to go on.  The trees on either side were mostly fine old ilexes, with here and there a cypress, but the place looked absolutely uncared for, and not a human being was to be seen. When we had walked a few hundred yards we came to a piece of broken wall on the left-hand side, terminating in an old stone archway, from which a paved court-yard ascended by a gentle slope to the door of a long, low, two-storied house, from the farther end of which a “stanzone” (lemon house) projected into the garden. The side of this house abutted on the avenue, across which, directly facing the old archway, a short flight of steps appeared to lead into the bushes.  Straight ahead of us was a row of cypress trees and beyond them a very large and palatial looking house.
My companion dropped down on one of the steps and declined to go any further.  We had had a long and very tiring day, and were rather depressed by the sense of time and trouble thrown away. “Well,” I said resolutely, “I am going on to that house:.  I want to ask if there is anything to let hereabouts.” Accordingly I walked on to the big mansion, and was astonished to find the English arms over the ample portico!  The bell was answered by a fine-looking servant, who in answer to my query said, “No, the villino was let” – further enquiries elicited the information that it was let till the first of November.
That was the precise date at which we wanted a house.  The old man offered to show me the villino, but I felt that I had gained the information I wanted, and that it was better at that late hour to leave further investigations to another day, and to make the best of our way back to our distant home.  But a few days later we returned to this place; I was very anxious to arrive, if possible, at some kind of decision before my companion left for England, having no fancy for choosing a settlement entirely on my own responsibility.  

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Light Falling on Bamboo

I am just reading Light Falling on Bamboo, a novel based on the life of the Trinidadian artist Michel Jean Cazabon (1813-1888), by Trinidad-born writer  Lawrence Scott, and am rather ashamed that I was not aware of Cazabon’s career, as I did once search for nineteenth-century views of the Caribbean, to see what images were being produced for (as I assumed) the European market. 

 Cazabon was the son of free black   property-owning parents originally from Martinique.  He attended St Edmund's College, outside Ware, and then studied under Paul Delaroche in Paris, exhibiting at the Salon before returning to Trinidad.  Scott’s book is fiction, owing to the lack of letters, memoirs or other records of Cazabon’s life. He married a Frenchwoman and his work indicates sympathy with the Barbizon school of ruralist artists like Corot and Millet and their concern with the effects of light; in the Caribbean, landscape-with-figures seems to have been his dominant subject, though I don’t know enough to summarise his output.  

 Several of the views depict arching bamboo trees, hence Scott’s title.

Coincidentally, this week I just caught the end of the National Gallery’s summer exhibition based around Titian’s Diana and Actaeon  series, which included backdrops for Covent Garden’s ballet series Metamorphoses by Chris Ofili, who now lives and works in Trinidad.

I learn that several of Cazabon's pictures are at the former home of the governor of Trinidad in Cazabon's time, Lord Harris, in Kent.  How intriguing.

PS    Lawrence Scott will be talking about Michel Cabazon at Belmont House, Throwley, ME13 0HH at an event hosted by High Commission of Trinidad and Tobago to celebrate Cabazon's bi-centenary on Saturday 6 July from noon.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Missing Frink

The new BRONZE exhibition at the Royal Academy is very splendid, ranging as it does from pre-history to the present day and globally east-west-north-south.  It's disappointing  and surprising however to see nothing by Elizabeth Frink, a sculptor who dealt so vigorously with the medium, in most of  the exhibition's categories - figures, animals, groups, gods, objects, heads.

Frink's Tribute Heads are evident heirs to Graeco-Roman ones, while her Front Runner would make a lovely companion to the mutilated Dancing Satyr which was dredged from the Sicilian sea just a few years ago and opens the show in a space all to itself.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Tate 2 [Pre-Raphaelites]

see this third leader in the Guardian

better something than nothing, but don't jump to think this token presence does justice to women artists' contribution to the movement

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Pre-Raphaelite Preview

A swift alert to one appealing aspect of the new Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at Tate Britain - the inclusion of several sculpted works by Alex Munro, an unjustly neglected member of the original circle.   An especial addition to the canon is a lovely marble relief portrait from 1859 of Elizabeth Smith, wife of Charlotte Bronte's publisher.  Delicately carved, the head, shoulder and hand emerge from a concave oval at a slight angle, as if the sitter were leaning towards the spectator.  The work has been in the Scottish National Gallery for just five years and deserves to be well known.  Check out also Munro's bust of Dante, its simplified dignity a telling contrast to the fussy gothickry of John Hancock's bronze figurine of Beatrice.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Finding the Garden 4

 From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
 Some friends, living at a considerable distance from where we were, wrote to us, saying that they thought we might find what we required in an old villa in their neighbourhood which had just been put in order – Italian order – for letting.  Accordingly we left home early one morning to inspect this particular house, and to explore the neighbourhood generally.  The place we had come so far to see was a rambling, old-fashioned farm-house, situated on a hill; the ascent would soon have knocked to pieces woman or beast, and it was away from any main road – it would have been admirable for a man and his wife wishing to rear a family of boys and girls in a back-woods kind of fashion, but we were not prepared to accept that kind of existence.  Its one merit was the extremely small rent asked for a whole floor of good rooms; but, as I ran my eye over them, and took stock of all that would have to be done before these were habitable according to English ideas, I felt that the cheapness was of the kind likely to be very expensive in the long run, - so, much regretting the lost time and trouble, we prepared to return to our own part of the country.  But, thinking it a pity not to vary our route, we struck, rather at random, through various fields and lanes, exploring more than one tenement as we went along, and finally arriving, very hot and tired, at a small village of a not very inviting aspect.
In my time, in the “good old days”, the fashion for English people to inhabit country-houses in the neighbourhood of Florence was almost unknown.  Here and there an Anglo-Italian, settled in Italy for business or other reasons, might own a property on which he would spend a few weeks in summer.  But the English in those days had not spread themselves over the face of the land, as they have since done, consequently I was quite ignorant of the lay of the land, or of where we were, or how far distant from Florence.  A few steps ahead of us some large iron gates stood open, disclosing a long avenue thickly planted with trees.  I pointed this out to my companion and suggested our exploring it, to see what might be found within.  She, being very tired, and somewhat cross, protested loudly: “I cannot think,” said she, “what makes you want to go there.  It is evidently private ground; no one else does such things.”

Saturday, 8 September 2012


Far and away the best thing about these Games has been the amazing springy legs now used by those who’ve lost their own.  It’s not just that the athletes can now run 100m in a few seconds but that they can stroll, skip and apparently dance with as much if not more agility than the able-bodied.
I’d never seen these bendy, bouncy blades before and hope they are as easy to use (and available) in everyday life as on the track – and that those who invented / developed them enjoy global acclaim.  Sport is of course A Good Thing, but this is truly astounding.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Finding the Garden 3

 From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
So we missed the chance of becoming landed proprietors.  It was one of the very few places I have ever seen that I wished to possess, but it was in a singularly lonely and unprotected situation, and some years later, when socialistic troubles and disturbances were more pronounced in that district than in any other part of Italy, I felt that it was perhaps fortunate that we were not in such an isolated position, and in a neighbourhood so renowned for the lawless violence of its inhabitants.  All our friends had remonstrated at the idea of this retreat from British civilization; and everyone begged us to look about in Tuscany, in the neighbourhood of Florence, before coming to a decision.  We settled ourselves for the summer in the ground floor of a wonderful old villa, near Michael Angelo’s Fortezza, dating back to the days of the Republic, belonging to a Romagnuolo, a brother-in-law of Aurelio Saffi.
An extraordinarily mixed group of people tenanted this house, which had various outlets, and while one door opened on a steep Costa, another, far above it, led into a charming garden from which our apartment was entered.  In one corner a widow with a family of daughters had a quartiere.  The girls were umbrella-makers by trade, and formed a picturesque group at work in their small courtyard.  A post-office clerk had a bedroom in another part of the house, a lucky thing for us, as he used to bring up our letters and papers late at night, when he returned from his bureau.  This worthy made a futile attempt as a watery grave, owing to some unsuccessful love-affair, but the only results were a good ducking, and our landlord getting into a rage at his folly and turning him out.  On the floor above us lived an Italian officer with his wife and child, and in an old tower on the top of all dwelt the padrone di casa and his foster brother, who attended to all his wants.  The old gentleman dressed himself every day at five o’clock, and departed to his café, where he invariably spent his evenings.
A goat roamed about the garden, and lovely white pigeons used to fly in and out of the big vaulted  chamber which was our drawing room. I took this quartiere for the summer months, just to have some kind of pied-à-terre.  My companion was going over to England, and I felt that if I was bound to be dull, it was better to be so within reach of books and one or two old friends, than alone in a  mountain retreat.
Delightful as this place was as  a summer abode, we felt it to be hopelessly unsuitable for a permanent residence for Inglesi like ourselves, requiring warmth and comfort indoors, for we well knew how piercingly cold the Tuscan winters could be.  So we began to hunt about in the hot June days, resisting all the offers of our old padrone di casa : - he would give up his own sunny rooms in the tower, - and build an inner staircase to them from our apartment, anything, in short, in the brick and mortar line, if we would only remain.  No Italian landlord can bear to see so desirable a possession as an English tenant leave his house without making an effort for retain him or her as the case may be.