Thursday, 26 September 2013

Moore vs Bacon?

Almost by its nature, sculpture in bronze or stone has to sit, stand or lie in a grounded space, whereas painted figures can fly or float in their flat plane; hence, I suppose, Francis Bacon's use of visual grids and plinths anchoring his writhing figures in an architectural illusion that powerfully conveys a physical entity, such as Henry Moore's reclining or standing forms possess intrinsically.

Some critics have seen this as a contest  - which is top dog or best in the modern British art show - which speaks eloquently of current attitudes to art - inherited, it is true, from the Renaissance ranking of painters and sculptors into  a pantheon of good, better, best.   But visual interest is more important than grading, and the Moore-Bacon [must be a better pun there] exhibition at the Ashmolean delivers this by judicious juxtaposition of pictures and sculptures that 'speak' or rather gesture to each other in a fairly spacious space.  It is partly the common deployment of truncated, amputated, barely recognisable human bodies, often contorted, angry and mobile in Bacon's oils,  static and impassive in Moore's bronzes.  Alongside these the learned curators have hung some of the museum's great master muscle studies by Michelangelo, of comparably partial limbs and torsos, thereby paying compliments to Bacon and Moore.

Not all are mutilated figures - there is a stimulating mix of forms, shapes, colour and patination. Another good thing about the exhibition is that there is neither too much nor too little - enough to satisfy eye and mind, not overstuff either.


Monday, 9 September 2013

Italian Gardens Old and Modern 10

Neatly raked beds are an unknown quantity in Tuscany.  The gardener digs the ground, turns over the clods of earth, more or less big, and leaves them so!   Now unraked beds I will not have, any more than I will have weeds in beds, or in gravel walks, or suckers of roses left to destroy the roots of the plants.  It seems ridiculous to mention such elementary things as these, but I have been a good many years driving them into people’s heads.  I always say to the gardener, you may, or may not, have success in growing good plants, but neatness and order in the garden are my first requisites, and these it is within your power to achieve.  And the smaller the garden is, the greater the necessity for having it in a decent and orderly state.
The great feature of my small garden is the wonderful beauty of its setting.  If the views on the park side to the east and south are fine, those on our garden side to the west and north, are indescribably beautiful.  As I have before mentioned, owing to the slight fall of the ground, there is no indication that the wall that bounds it gives on to the high road.  On the other side of this road is a large olive yard, with here and there a tree of faintest green, interspersed among the grey olives. This olive plantation is backed by a belt of cypress trees forming a curve, and seeming at last to touch the lower slopes of Monte Morello, the great weather-gauge of the district.  Beyond these cypresses, to the northwest, are noble plantings of stone-pines, almost giving one the sensation of Rome, and here and there a friendly, weather-stained roof peeps out from among the woods, for this is a thriving, populous countryside, the very garden-land of Tuscany.

Looking to the southwest, away beyond the cypress belt, the wonderful green plain through which the Arno winds its slow way to the Pisan coast, shines and shimmers, never the same in any two hours of the day.  In some lights you see it as pale green grass, in others it somehow has the effect of being itself the sea; it is bounded by a ridge of pale blue Apennines, and, in the far distance, the Carrara peaks tower in their grand isolation, veiled in mist during the greater part of the day, but beautifully clear and distinct at sunset, when a pearly tint is over the whole landscape.
A view like this redeems what would otherwise be a rather commonplace patch of ground of the suburban order, and transforms it into a kind of entrance porch to the great temple of Nature lying beyond.  And, sometimes, lying in the deck-chair in the fresh cool air of an Italian summer morning, and watching the lights and shadows  come and go over all this wonderful beauty, one asks oneself : “Was there any use in making a garden at all?”

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Italian Gardens Old and Modern 9

 The Tuscan nomenclature is very pretty .  Oleanders are “mazzi di San Giuseppe”, so called because they are generally in flowers by that saint’s day in June; Guelder roses are known as “Pallone di Maggio”; syringe is called “Pazienza”; and balsams are “bei uomini di Parigi”.  There is a little white annual, of which I do not remember the English name, but it is here called “mughetti di Parigi”, i.e. French lilies of the valley, and the white snowberry is “Job’s tears.” Rhus Catrinus is called “nebbia” (cloud).

Till I lived in Tuscany I never realized how very essential air is to plants.  Looking back to my English gardening days, I don’t seem to remember ever having heard success or failure so much attributed to this matter of air, both as to quality and quantity, as it is here. Tuscans are most critical as to the quality of air; you constantly hear the expression aria fine. i.e. rare, fine, as we should say.   As I get older myself, I am sensible of being much more dependent on air, in fact I sometimes think the feeling of want of air to breathe amounts to a disease. We are rarely indoors without our windows open all the twenty-four hours, but that amount does not satisfy my necessities, and I am conscious all the time of the wish to be in the open air, and I constantly hear the same thing of the plants.  Carnations in particular will simply not thrive, except at a certain elevation.  I was one day in a Florence nursery, belonging to a gardener whose specialty is raising creepers of all sorts, and seeing some very fine carnations, I said to him, “S., did you grow these?”
“Oh dear no, Signora, I could not grow them down here; a contadino from up above brings them to me every week.”

The regulation plan in Tuscany for pots of carnations (they are always grown in pots, never in the ground, and treated as annuals) is on the top of a wall.  Two years ago, Eugenio pointed out to me that our only chance with these, was to keep them during the summer and autumn months on the northwest side of the garden, but that the wall there being rounded, was useless as a shelf for the pots.  Accordingly, I had iron stanchions driven in, so as to support a moveable wooden staging, capable of taking sixty pots along the top of the wall; and this year the plants look thriving enough, though far inferior to those of some of my friends who live in higher and more breezy situations.
Pecorino is the standard manure for these in Tuscany.  It is sheeps’ droppings brought down from the mountains, and administered as liquid manure every second or third day, before the flowering season.  This year there has been a disease among the carnations, and many growers have lost their entire stock of young plants. They never propagate them here by layers as we do, but either by cuttings or from seed.  The cuttings are taken off from the old plants in early spring, and grown on till June, when they should be nice, strong, well-established young plants, ready to be put in their big flowering pots, four or five to a pot.  They begin to flower in October, and if you are fortunate enough to have sunny and sheltered situation for them, you may count on flowers all through the winter.  But at their best, carnations grown in Tuscany can never compare with those from Nice, or Genoa, or Venice – thee last are superb. Coffee grounds are an excellent stimulant for carnations.  An artist friend of mine at Venice, who was a very successful raiser of them, told me he attributed their fine flowering to the share they had of his morning cup of coffee!  I always enjoin the men who sweep our chimneys to save the small quantity of soot afforded by the wood fires, and give it to the gardener; but it is very difficult to persuade a Tuscan gardener that soot is a desirable adjunct to carnation comfort.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Wordsworth's Barberry Tree

Did William Wordsworth write the poem called The Barberry Tree about a wild berberis tossing and dancing in the wind, like the more famous daffodils?  This question has been equally tossed about in the half-century since the text, ascribed to him by Charles Elton, was first discovered, and though critics remain divided and uncertain, the piece has been included in the official oeuvre.  Now Christie Arno has found a second manuscript version, also transcribed by Elton, with significant differences, as if a draft in progress had been rejected. Her account of the discovery, and full text, are in the TLS, here

Whereas the previous view of the poem was that it dated from WW’s early years at Dove Cottage, Christie demonstrates how closely the Barberry Tree accords with the landscape and life in Somerset in 1798-9, when the Wordsworths rented Alfoxden House, close to the Coleridges at Nether Stowey.

This was the reason for my visit earlier this year, a little later than the barberry usually flowers, but certainly in full accord with the fields and lanes and cider orchards described in the poem, and above all with the strong winds blowing over the Quantock hills, where we found what seemed the descendants of the withered hawthorn, muddy pond and mound described in The Thorn, a contemporary work.  And we met a large group of wild mares and foals, the Quantock ponies that WW did not write about.