Saturday, 23 June 2012

Joanna Boyce Wells

No works by Joanna Boyce Wells will feature in the forthcoming Pre-Raphaelite show at Tate Britain – a pity because of all the women artists who participated in the renewal of energy and sincerity that marked the movement’s beginnings, she was the most gifted and committed.  This is underlined by Sue Bradbury’s book  Joanna, George and Henry, which presents a full account of her career drawn from the family archive. Letters, diaries, artworks originally owned by Joanna’s widower Henry Wells were lost when WW2 firebombing hit the home of their now elderly daughter Alice, who had already begun to record her mother’s life.  Then Alice recalled having given transcripts to her sister – which in turn lay forgotten for 50 more years.
Pam Gerrish Nunn used some of the material in her writings on Joanna, who by common consent had more natural talent as well as seriousness than either her brother or husband. Reading Bradbury's narrative - a valuable addition to PR literature - it’s hard to credit  how after her reluctant marriage Joanna was able to paint so much and so well at the same time as producing three children in three and a half years.  The last birth killed her, at age 29.  ‘English art has lost more than it knows,’ wrote Alex Gilchrist, while Rossetti's comment was bitter: ‘a great artist sacrificed to bringing more kids into the world’.  The book also demonstrates that had she lived the boys of the Brotherhood might not now so dominate the story.

Friday, 22 June 2012


A beguiling feature of Nikolaus Pevsner’s original Buildings of England series is his discussions with churches and mansions, teasing out their histories.  Thus, almost at random, in St Nicholas, West Tanfield, North Yorks [or North Riding as it was in Pevsner’s time] :
The rest is Perp i.e. the ashlar-faced tower, the N chapel of one bay, and the windows as far as they are not Victorian; for the church was severely restored in 1859-60.  The N chapel has a most interesting motif, a small recess in its S wall connected with the chancel by a two-light opening to the S and a single-light above a two-light opening to the E. Could it have been a tiny chantry? A chantry was in fact founded for masses to be read for Maude Marmion, who had died in 1335.  Licence for the foundation came in 1363. But can this little Perp stone box be so early?
The conversational tone makes for good bedtime reading, since one can raise a detailed picture and plan in the mind, together with a reasonable evocation of the atmosphere.  In her monumentally-detailed and superbly readable biography of Pevsner, Susie Harries neatly contrasts his ‘pedantic’ approach with the ‘poetic’ approach of Betjeman’s English Parish Churches:
If the door seems to be locked, turn the handle the other way and push hard. Then feel on the wall plate of the porch for the key.  Then look under the mat. Then lift the notice board from the porch wall and look under that … Church keys are usually 6” or 8” long and easy to find.
Pevsner, comments Harries, ‘has by now dated the roof, attributed the windows and is back in the car, while Betjeman is still on the doormat savouring the ambience.’  Pevsner’s too-tight timetable was of his own making, in order to accommodate BofE travels in the summer vacation, and the terse, sometimes inadequate descriptions answered publishing constraints. Nonetheless, his informed attentiveness is nearly always satisfying, to use one of his own words of approbation.  And often the clipped sentences are unexpected as well as perceptive:
Fylingdales Early Warning Station:  Three perfect white globes of great size on three perfect black plinths in the grandiose undulating silence of the moor. The geometry of the space age at its most alluring and most frightening.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Late Pre-Raphaelite

better late than never ... an exhibition of works by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale at the Lady Lever Art Gallery on the Wirral.  Curated by Pamela Gerrish Nunn, my old friend and Pre-Raphaelite colleague, this is the first real showcasing of EFB's work for several decades, and comes neatly in advance of Tate's autumn show  to demonstrate the long-running influence of the movement.   Brickdale's subjects were striking and diverse, and where the subjects were provided, as in her many illustrated books, the compositions are frequently unexpected, so there is  seldom any sense of sugary romanticism [ sorry, for those who like Pre-Raphaelite sugar ] but a direct apprehension of the mise-en-scene and many lovely effects of colour.
A Pre-Raphaelite Journey: Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale is on from now until October.   The catalogue is available from Liverpool Museums website:

As Brickdale's work is little known, and many works remain virtually undiscovered, this is a great opportunity to assess her output and decide to what extent, if at all, it suffered from being associated with such an outdated art movement as Pre-Raphaelitism, rather than responding to any subsequent influence - Impressonist, Symboliste, Post-Impressionist etc.  Hopefully too it will focus attention on some of EFB's other neglected works, including the LadyChapel triptych in Newland church, Forest of Dean, sadly in need of conservation.

On the right a suavely flattering portrait in the exhibition of Winifred Roberts, granddaughter of George and Rosalind Howard.  She was EFB's student and went on, as Winifred Nicholson,  to be a painter in a quite different mode.  But a nice example of the female baton being passed on. 

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

24 Hours in A&E

No, not me,  just a plug for the documentary series on C4 which is a brilliantly-made demonstration of how emergency health services work at their highest and best pitch, with each and every team in professional  co-ordination.   You begin to see how many people are directly and essentially involved in treating  all those who without notice require urgent attention.  From the paramedics who collect casualties from the street or fly in the air ambulances, through the trauma medics and nurses, technicians, pathologists and many others unseen, to the cleaners who mop the blood from the floor, all the swift and skilled operations, even if speeded up somewhat via TV editing, are truly remarkable and very worth remarking on.  And the individual staff featured are wonderfully terse in their refusal to take credit or centre stage; hats off to the production team too, which has resisted the push to create a new group of media celebrities.
24 Hours in A&E is also a tacit demonstration both of why the NHS is so prized in Britain, and why there is hostility towards privatisation of medical care.  Watching this series, one can easily envisage a scenario where payment is one stage in the admission process, or where repeated hospital admissions for chronic conditions are rationed by the insurance policy.  We don't want to be there.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Heliotrope and Marzipan

‘… in his search for sensations that would be at once new and delightful, and possess that element of strangeness that is so essential to romance, he would often adopt certain modes of thought that he knew to be really alien to his nature, abandon himself to their subtle influences, and then, having, as it were, caught their colour and satisfied his intellectual curiosity, leave them with that curious indifference that is not incompatible with a real ardour of temperament…  And so he would now study perfumes, and the secrets of their manufacture, distilling heavily-scented oils, and the burning odorous gums of the east…’ 

Thus Dorian Gray.  And thus Arthur Symons:
The feverish room and that white bed / The tumbled skirts upon a chair, / The novel flung half-open, where / Hat-pins, puffs, and paints are spread… / This … will rise, a ghost of memory, if / Ever again my handkerchief / Is scented with white heliotrope.
And thus, so to speak, Catherine Maxwell in her beguiling professorial lecture at QMUL this week, exploring the frequent but hitherto under-appreciated allusions to cosmetic fragrances in Decadent literature.   A suggestively fascinating topic, promising new synaesthetic avenues into 1890s culture, personality, sexuality, performance, perversity.
But until, in a flourish to end the lecture, Catherine handed out scented sticks, I had not known that the fin-de-siecle perfume white heliotrope smells just like marzipan – or, as Catherine noted,  like playdoh.  Which brings a different perspective to Symons’ poem, or maybe to playdoh.  But, impo, not a nice aroma for anyone's hankie.