Saturday, 31 March 2012


Jan Marsh: FISK JUBILEE CHOIR: BBC R4 just broadcast a short play by the late Adrian Mitchell, who was inspired by the true story of a  Welsh journalist who toured with th...

Saturday, 24 March 2012


Television  documentaries often work best when one knows nothing about the subject.  Then the basic information  can be interestingly new and the interpretation thought-provoking.  

Art documentaries have their own aspect, showing both the (sometimes too) familiar and the excitingly unknown, with artworks and places one hasn't seen.   BBC4's current series on Art Nouveau in Europe kicked off with a sort of introduction in Paris, showcasing Mucha, Lalique, Galle and Guimard  and succeeded within those limitations and those of the presenter Stephen Smith (a 'cultural correspondent' of whom I had not heard) with odd pronunications, including Gismonda, Beranger and Art Nouveau with a voiced t.   

To some extent like an Antiques Roadshow spin-off, the best part was the visit to Castel Beranger (in view of above comment, apologies that this blog does not explain how to add accents) or at least its entrance hall, as residents went about their daily business.  it would have been good to see inside an apartment, but maybe they are too much altered, or maybe just too much, as Smith said of another  over-preserved interior.   Art Nouveau is often perilously grotesque.  Another besetting sin of TV art is more talking than showing: one wants camera-work that mimics the eye's revealingly slow travels between full-view and details.

From the trailer, the next episode is set in Britain, so one partly knows what to expect - Glasgow and presumably stile Liberty - though hoping for new discoveries.  There are only three programmes, so Belgium, Austro-Hungary and Catalonia may be rather squeezed. 

Friday, 16 March 2012


If you can get in … the RA can rarely have been more crowded ( altho not in this image)

The initial impression is bright and jolly in seaside holiday manner, which certainly lifts the spirits. Compare the authentically grey tones of one Yorkshire landscape from the 1950s with the purple, viridian, orange and lime views of today. To begin with my eyes did not much like the rough, crude brushwork which, combined with the violent fauviste hues, felt rather brutal.  But it quickly wins one over, through sheer exuberance and rapid energy: whole walls with multiple swift oil sketches of similar locations, done apparently on site  - presumably in an hour or so, all year round.  These are captivating en masse and in some ways preferable to composite walls of one scene which need more viewing distance. 

One is reminded of Turner’s compulsive sketching and Constable’s cloud studies, and of course Van Gogh’s urgent vividly-coloured strokes.   The familiar, repeated motif is of a road leading centrally into the distance.  Perhaps there are too many trees, however: apart from the desire to fill ALL the RA galleries, one wonders why every one of these compulsive works must be displayed, and the Yorkshire woods rather dominate over the fields, hedgerows, Yosemite and Grand Canyon, though the triffid-like hawthorn blossom pictures more than hold their own.   But despite or maybe because of the picture density [ and one should add the room of 'copies' or daubs after Claude which on first viewing seem mainly embarrassing ] the overall effect is exhilarating.
Then there are the videos, which capture tossing bushes and branches in strong wind, eclipsing the illusionary movement of the oil sketches, and also surprising indoor sequences – five professional dancers on an oil-seed yellow floor, which as the curators say of another work is both ravishing in colour and hypnotic in slowish motion.  Quite different but as comparably compelling as Bill Viola’s works.

Monday, 12 March 2012


or rather Henrician, as it dates from 1543.  This is the structure that gave William Morris his love of ancient buildings when as a lad he rambled there on his pony from Walthamstow, and led in time to SPAB and English Heritage and the whole conservation movement.   The solid timber three-floor building on the southern edge of what's left of  Epping Forest has now undergone a complete 'English Heritage' makeover [ by City of London to current EH specifications]  complete with waxwork-style foods and costumes to try on.  Very small, but free entry and done in a robust Tudorbethan style, the exterior all now lime-washed to cancel the Victorian black-and-white half-timbering which was apparently rotting the wood.   It's in the process of acquiring a brand-new visitor centre next door built in the same massive-beam manner, and hard by is a refurbished clapboard cafe  serving breakfast lunch and tea.

Two or three miles north through the Forest  - on a bizarrely hot winter day with dormant or dead leafless trees - is High Beech church, right in the middle of woods.  Built in 1873 to the design of Arthur Blomfield, it is neat pattern-book English Gothic with broach spire, looking almost as crisp as it did when consecrated. It was paid for by local resident Thomas Charles Baring, of the bank, on condition he chose architect and style. The dedication to Holy Innocents reflects the death of  two of the Barings' children.
Catching the end of the sermon (on the money-changers in the temple) we learnt that there is now a Canal Chaplain ministering to the Lea navigation - a sizeable waterways community
as we've seen from Ware to Hackney.

Sunday, 11 March 2012


by Judith Weir @ ROH -   stunning son-et-lumiere, the son coming in great waves or winds of sound to match the lumiere of kaleidoscopic colours on a vast sail and neon ladder that pivot and swivel and shimmer

[Only you can't watch it from here - go to ROH homepage] 
It's a sort of loud meditation on the wheel of fortune or the blind workings of luck/fate (thankfully designer Tom Pye eschewed the ferris wheel motif).  A thin enough folk plot, but enough for opera.    Heroine's billionaire parents lose everything in financial crash, she descends to street and hard work in sweatshop and laudromat, while owner of burnt-out kebab-van owner is reduced to sleeping rough.   Happy ending via massive lottery win shared by all.  Break-dancers Soul Mavericks are stars of show.  Musically compelling and unlike Klinghoffer the words don't fight for one's attention.
There seem to be only a handful of performances so well worth catching.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012


 The portrait of the Duchess of Portsmouth, one of Charles II’s three favourite partners, is intriguing on account of her young black attendant (whose identity is unknown).  Recently I came across a differently interesting record of a fancy party held in her apartments, written by John Evelyn, which describes a diplomatic delegation finding themselves in the midst of luxurious Restoration licence and, being Muslims, not knowing where to look:
24 January 1682: This evening I was at an entertainment of the Moroccan Ambassador at the Duchess of Portsmouth's glorious apartments at Whitehall [Palace] where there was a great banquet of sweetmeats and music; but at which both the Ambassador and his retinue behaved themselves with extraordinary moderation and modesty, though placed about a long table, a lady between the Moors, and among these were the King's natural children, namely Lady Lichfield and Sussex, the Duchess of Portsmouth, Nelly [Gwyn] etc, concubines and cattle of that sort, as splendid as jewels and excess of bravery could make them; the Moors neither admiring nor seeming to regard anything, furniture or the like, with any earnestness, and but decently tasting the banquet.  They drank a little milk and water, but not a drop of wine; they also drank of a  sorbet and jacolatt [chocolate]; did not look about or stare at the ladies, or express the least surprise, but with courtly negligence in pace, countenance and whole behaviour, answered only to such questions as were asked with a great deal of wit and gallantry; and so gravely as to leave with this compliment that God would bless the Duchess of Portsmouth and the Prince, meaning the little Duke of Richmond [Charles's son].  The King came in at the latter end, just as the Ambassador was going away...

Evelyn also related how the Ambassador went sometimes to the theatres, 'where any foolish or fantastical action he could not forbear laughing but he endeavourd to hide it with extraordinary modesty and gravity.'

The Moroccans impressed their hosts in other ways too:
The Ambassador went often to Hyde Park, where he and his retinue showed their extraordinary  activity in horsemanship and flinging and catching their lances at full speed; they rode very well and could stand upright at full speed, managing their spears with incredible agility.

 Finally on 31 May the Ambassador became an honorary member of the Royal Society 'subscribing his name and titles in Arabic', which is also interesting, reflecting Moroccan knowledge of science and medicine.  His and later envoys' signature are shown on the Royal Society website, which gives his name anglicized as Muhammed Ibn Haddu. 

Sunday, 4 March 2012


The self-penned back-flap blurb About the Author begins by describing Sewell’s long stint as Evening Standard art critic [where he has transformed from appalling old fogey to brilliant national treasure] as ‘the sad end of a once promising career, the Orwell, Hawthornden and other prizes scant consolation to a man who once enjoyed life as a scholar gypsy’ and  ends ‘He is as old as Methuselah and frail as the stricken Job’. 
It is the tone and vocabulary that give Sewell’s writing its characteristic astringency – as exigent towards himself as others, with pitiless judgement tempered by wit, boasting and confessed folly.  His biography has its historically interesting elements, as the son of a musical and arty free spirit in the 1920s and an unknown father, growing up gay through grammar school and post-war national service, student days at the Courtauld in its legendary Anthony Blunt days, etc. The putative father was later revealed as composer Philip Heseltine aka Peter Warlock, but the evidence is very slight and the photographs most unconvincing, so one wonders if Sewell’s mother actually knew.  
Many of the anecdotes are very funny, but really it’s the way he tells them.  Although the insouciant, bitchy, self-deprecating style continues, I rather lost interest during Sewell’s years at Christies, where colleagues were either ignorant or venal or negligent or corrupt, and often all together.  But the first 200 pages are seriously entertaining. And the book's sub-title discloses the otherwise camouflaged regret of his life: for all his wide and penetrating knowledge of western art, Sewell began and abandoned the catalogue of a drawings collection in Windsor Castle, which would have led towards an academic career (his failure also to mention his degree makes one suspect he did not qualify for postgraduate study, though in those days standards were lax) and thus has remained an acute critic, but never the art historian he might have been.