Friday, 26 April 2013

Capitalist Pantomime

If you liked Clyborne Park, about social mobility in the US, and enjoyed Enron on the elaborate frauds of high finance, you ought to like  THE LOW ROAD by Clyborne’s Bruce Norris, billed as a ‘fable of free market economics and cut-throat capitalism’, and currently running at the Royal Court theatre.  Hardly a  fable (no moral conclusion) more a picaresque assemblage of satiric scenes on the theme of business history in the emerging US, with Adam Smith as guide, preaching self-interest as the beneficent engine of wealth creation through exploitation of individuals, whether by footpads or investment advisers.  The central character is a white entrepreneur, loosely based on Tom Jones with a nod to Candide, whose accountancy skills line his own pockets while fleecing others, but who also suffers the wheel of financial fortune. Fictive ancestor of a near-namesake, young Trumpett’s 18th century tale is entwined with that of John Blanke, plucked from the plantation to be heir to an English earldom (don’t ask) before being re-enslaved, thus adding race to the mix.  The scenes tumble in an increasingly pantomimic manner, punctuated by dramatic explosions, as when Occupy-style protestors overwhelm a global free market conference or aliens descend in a spaceship.  If it’s all rather incoherent, then so is capitalist history, though sharper politics and a more Brechtian approach would have better served the energetic actors.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

First Plantings 10

From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
The first of the five oblong beds, being the most sheltered, contains the more delicate teas; the second, just below it, has teas and tea hybrids; below that again, bed number three contains hybrid perpetuals in dark reds and crimsons.  Unless these last are picked in the early morning, they become discoloured after a very few hours of hot sunshine.  The fourth bed contains moss roses of many shades, from pure white to deep crimson; these are pegged down so as to entirely cover the bed.   This is by far the best way of growing the moss rose here, very few gardens have these, and I find they are always much appreciated.  The fifth bed is planted chiefly with pale pink and white tea, and tea hybrids; this is the bed with the wire fence (now completely covered with Gloire Lorraine and Kaiserin Augusta Victoria roses) which closes this division of the garden, and screens off a large brick pit I had made below the wall of the stanzone, on that side, in which our carnations are housed in cold weather. All these rose-beds are edged with small rough stones among which violets have been planted, forming a thick green border, and giving thousands of flowers for many months of the year, immediately within them are various narcissus and jonquils, and the beds themselves are carpeted between the roses with pansies, sown in the autumn, and planted out in December.  This autumn, finding that we had some yellow parrot tulips to spare, I planted them, with the purple Lord Beaconsfield pansies, in the first rose-bed, and hope for a good display in April.
The upper bed of these seven I kept for early double tulips.  At the back of it against the low wall, was a hedge of  “Cedrina” (sweet lemon-plant), and tall poles were inserted here, in order to fix wires, and carry them from one to the other, and then, across the court-yard, to the roof of the house. These are covered with roses, Fortune’s Yellow, and Camelliana (the Italian name for the old white Lamarque), and Saffrano.  The two last are the best winter flowering roses of the country.  Fortune’s Yellow is the earliest to flower, and in April this fence is a sheet of pink and gold. The only drawback to this rose is, that it does not bloom again in the autumn; but with so many that have a second flowering, that does not so much matter.  Wherever there was a tree-trunk, or a pole available, it was clothed with honeysuckle or climbing roses, and our newest plantings have been of wisteria, which we now have on either side of the west  borders, so as to form a pergola over the two rose hedges.
It must be understood that all this planting had to de done by degrees.   For several years I had very little to spend on the garden, and had to go adagio. In gardening, as in everything else in life, one has to buy one’s experience, and it is easy to see afterwards how much better many things might have been done. But, as regards the general laying out of the ground, I don’t know that I could alter or improve much, if at all, on the present distribution.  The ground is by no means ideal, but one has to do the best possible with the material at hand. If I could cut out the undergrowth of the old shrubbery, here and there, we might have lovely sowings of poppies, delphiniums, larkspurs, lupins, and such-like things, in true English fashion. But one must take the goods the gods provide, and to have the full liberty of all the beautiful park and garden and podere, out of which we get infinitely more enjoyment than their proprietor does, in addition to our own flower-patches, is a piece of good fortune for which we are duly thankful.

Monday, 15 April 2013



Sculpture is notoriously hard to photograph or even film – though possibly it works with 3D technology – and it’s sometimes almost as difficult to display well. With their familiar proportions, portrait busts ought to be relatively easy to install and light, but I’m not a great fan of the NPG’s permanent displays, rows of  heads against the wall, or in central clusters.  So the temporary exhibition on the half-landing of busts by Jacob Epstein is a visual delight that invites the viewer to move between and around the heads, observing all the sculptor’s skill in modelling features, surfaces, textures and mass, to give the works compelling presence.
Very notably, the commanding bust of Ramsay Macdonald, whose appearance in other portraits, photos and film footage often suggests shambling indecision, is here endowed with confidence, maturity, energy, indicating how tragic his final failure of leadership may have been.  That of Nehru, on a smaller scale, suggests inner depth and weight of care under necessary inscrutability.  Epstein did not know these sitters intimately, and his rendering of their expressions does not depend on any knowledge of their history or emotions, yet it powerfully conveys individual personality, often more vividly than through painting or drawing.   As Michael Caines notes of the NPG group, the viewer has the 'weird sensation' of being able to look the sitters in the eye, although equally unnerving is the fact that they don't look back, nor do they have have the blind stare common to sculpted busts.  Epstein's rough surfaces convey a most convincing equivalent to 'live' faces and fabrics.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Manet and friends

 Belatedly, but finally to MANET @ RA thanks to early morning visit, which was good to avoid crowding, and though the selection feels sparse, filling only just over half the galleries, that is better than the blockbuster overload. i hadn't paid attention so did not realise the focus is on portraits -  uneven in parts with weaker items but some stunning male full-lengths with  compelling presence and occupying the picture space at once firmly anchored yet not standing on anything visible.  

 I was very pleased to see the small head of Victorine Meurent, as herself rather than in costume or as Olympia.  Her creamy skin, white blouse and light cobalt ribbon above Titian hair remind me that Manet and Rossetti were friends at one remove, as it were, and that DGR was originally to have been included in Fantin-Latour's group portrait Hommage  à Delacroix, only was too dilatory to get  himself to France in time.  He welcomed Fantin to London soon after, so Fantin took DGR in charge when he went  with Fanny Cornforth to Paris in the autumn.  Fantin genially admitted that their tastes in art were entirely different, also observing that British artists valued sentiment, French artists savoir. 
In Paris DGR visited Manet and could well have seen Victorine’s portrait in the studio, along with Olympia and Déjeuner  sur l’herbe.  Though he abused ‘French slop’, this was rivalry, for he also responded competitively, saying it would put English artists on their mettle, and he was certainly stimulated, because unsettled, by Manet’s works. 
So how coincidental was his new image of fair-skinned Fanny plaiting her tawny hair, wearing a white shift with a slash of blue ribbon?  An acknowledged essay in colour, without sentiment notwithstanding its poetic ‘source’. The following year, when Manet wished to exhibit at the RA, Rossetti insisted on handling the works – ‘deux grands tableaux’, one of which featured a guitar, possibly Victorine as street-singer – although in the event neither was hung, which indicates that DGR did not over-exert himself.

Other links with Britain are glimpsed in the current show:  the RA’s own large format photo (mislabelled a carte-de-visite) by David Wilkie Wynfield, and a study for the Balcony that was bought from Manet’s studio sale by Sargent….


Friday, 5 April 2013

First Plantings 9

From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
On the other side of these roses is a fringe of pale blue irises, and planted on the grass are various lovely spring-flowering shrubs and fruit trees, double almond (the most beautiful of them all), double peach, double plum Weigelia rosea, Choisya ternata, a shrub which in this climate is of much slower growth than it appears to be in England, and one which I confess seems to me to be much overrated at present – all these and many others have the patch of earth surrounding them planted with snowdrops and Scilla bifolia, for first spring flowering. To these succeed nasturtiums, from the pale La Perle to the deepest orange, almost black; and of course still later on there might be lovely annuals there, but alas! Our scanty water supply compels us to restrict our autumn effects. I think this autumn I shall have pink ivy-leaved pelargoniums, which stand any amount of heat and drought.
Crossing the  grass to the other side, and standing at the   beginning of the gravel walk, the border on the left hand is divided from the grass by a hedge of red Bengal roses of sorts and kinds, running the whole length of the garden, some of them very large and double and their flowers shading from pale pink in the centre to deep red at the edge. I cannot now remember from whom we had these roses, but I think they must also have come from Monsieur Guillôt, the raiser of so many of the best modern roses. Twice a year, from the end of March to July, and again from September to Christmas, this hedge is one mass of roses, flowered down to the ground.  Standing at either end and looking along it in the light of a setting sun, the gorgeous effect of colour is something not easily forgotten. Nothing in my little garden has received so much admiration as this rose hedge; beneath it tea-roses are planted all along the border, which is finished off with a wide belt of white pinks – this spring we planted, behind these last, a double row of tulips, two hundred in each row, the double “Yellow Rose” behind the pinks, and, beyond that, the purple “Couleur de Vin”. The effect was very lovely.  On the grass side of the red-rose hedge are our Madonna lilies, big clumps of which alternate with herbaceous peonies, and when the tall flowering stems of the lilies rear their stately heads against the dark red roses, they make a lovely picture.
The border on the right of the gravel walk was, for some years, a mass of old ivy and laurel stumps, and I could get nothing to grow in it.  But eventually we got rid of the latter, leaving only the ivy to clothe the boundary wall, and I then planted pink China roses, with some Scotch briers all along the side, facing the dark red on the opposite border.  I had the greatest difficulty in getting these Scotch briers, so few nurserymen, even in Scotland, grow them now.  Among all garden scents, I now of none so sweet as that of the small flowers of these roses. This border was latterly filled entirely with irises, the early flowering Stylosa pumila, and other dwarf kinds in front, and Spanish and Germanica behind. I have Susiana also in this border, which is a very sheltered and sunny one; but though the latter flower fairly well, they do not make the big clumps into which their Germanic brethren develop.  This border is edged with violets, and we generally have our earliest pickings from it.
It will be seen from the above descriptions that I prefer things grown in masses, and I much wish now that our rose-beds had been planted much more in that fashion and in fewer varieties. These beds take about thirty-five roses apiece, planted about two feet apart each way.  I bought our first roses from a local nurseryman, and might as well have thrown the money they cost into the Arno.  Then I tried a Belgian firm, who did not prove much more satisfactory, and finally landed with Monsieur Guillôt, from whom I now have all my roses; and it would be difficult to improve on them, though now and then there is a failure.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

First Plantings 8

From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
Like many other gardeners, I started from the “landscape view” point, and determined that everything should be planted relativamente.  That is all very well up to a certain point, but when every effect has been thought out, and every bit of ground seems full, and things you “want to have” are always cropping up, it comes to this, - that they must either be popped into odd corners, or foregone altogether. Indeed I looked on the garden so much as existing for its own sake, that for some years, before flowers were plentiful in it, I would buy them in the market when required for the house, rather than rob the garden of those it possessed.  This put the finishing stroke to any reputation for sanity I may ever have enjoyed.  To have a garden, and not carry its flowers to market, was witless enough, according to the Tuscan standard, but to have flowers in the ground, and leave them there just for the pleasure of looking at them, while you wasted good money on buying what other folks raised and sold, - “May the saints preserve us from such mid-summer madness as that!”
I kept no diary of garden work, but our first planting was to fill the newly cleared border to the left of the grass walk with flowering shrubs.   These are very cheap in Tuscany, and many beautiful things are to be had that are only now beginning to be introduced into English gardens.  My long shrub border was planted according to my own design, and consisted of the large-leaved pale green Mahonia, Beali, Spirea prunifolia, which, grown as a pillar plant, has a most lovely effect in spring, when its long sprays of white blossoms hang down, from a height of seven or eight feet, in wreaths and festoons; Pittosporum, both the dark green and the variegated leaved kinds, Guelder roses, called here  “Pallone di Maggio”, and Pirus Japonica, which in this country is grown in balloon fashion, trained round and round, and very handsome it looks, when a mass of scarlet or pink flowers.  Somewhat behind these are Acera negunda variegata, their pale green and white foliage showing well against the dark background of the old shrubbery trees, but these thrive better in North Italy than in this dry Tuscan climate, and I have been frequently obliged to replace them.
Among these shrubs are Persian briers, La France, and many old-fashioned Italian borracina roses, red and crimson; sundry herbaceous plants and clumps of wallflowers and tulips; in front of the shrubs are herbaceous peonies of all sorts and colours, mostly picked up in old gardens here.  I now have a good named collection of them in another place, and beautiful tree-peonies on the grass; but those in this border I got during out first years here, just making a note where I had seen a good one in flower, from its earliest red shoots to its lovely blossoms, which have also the great merit of standing long when cut.
Some years later all my friends wanted a bit of those peonies, and I desired the gardener to take as many off-shoots as he could, without spoiling the plants.   But they took two seasons to recover my generosity, so ever since I have been very chary of dividing them. In front of the peonies are clumps of different varieties of Japanese anemones, most useful for cutting in the autumn, and at the very edge, close to grass walk, are groups of crocuses planted with a regard for a certain effect of colour, and in March, when these are in flower, they form one of the most beautiful of the garden effects.
Crocuses bastardize here after several years, and these have been renewed several times, but nothing would induce me to forgo these crocus groups.  For the border on the right of the grass walk I have an edging of them in mixture, and I know of nothing among spring flowers that gives the same amount of beauty at so small a cost. Later on, this right hand border was filled with oleander plants of various tints, rose, pale pink, white, yellow; both single and double flowering, the former being much the most beautiful.

For many years we carpeted the ground below and between the oleanders with daffodils, but, by degrees, these have all been transferred to the grass - partly because their effect, grown upon the latter, was so much better, but also because I wanted additional room for varieties of English and Spanish irises. Beyond the oleanders are  about thirty pillar roses; I left the selection of these entirely up to Monsieur Guillot of Lyons, only telling him that  I wanted their colours kept entirely to white, cream, and shades of yellow and orange.