The Secret History
By Donna Tartt
Quite a cult book and one I've been tempted to read for years. Now I've read it, I know why it's so highly regarded. I really enjoyed it and it turned into one of those rare books you recognise as special as you read it, and one you don't want to finish.
Right from the start, you know the name of the victim and the perpetrators; the rest of the book is a slow but fascinating exposition of why this happened. As Tartt has said, this is a whydunnit not a "whodunnit". We know all the details of the crime and what led up to it half way through the book and are left with the consequences.
The novel follows a group of six students at a Vermont College through the eyes of Richard Papen, a newcomer and outsider. From California, he invents a more privileged back-story to cover his humble origins and to try and fit in with the others. They're East coast and richer. One or two are extremely well off, although there's a bit of an aura of dissolution around. Henry is the dark core of the group: tall, strong and a language savant, in love with the ancient world but cold and a bit odd. This group are "elite" in that they decide to drop almost everything except Classics, studying with one teacher only, the charismatic scholar Julian Morrow. They live and breathe in Greek and are submerged in a world very different to the modern. In fact, for much of the book, the world I felt submerged in was more F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and the "gilded" 20's rather than the 1980's. The occasional reminders that the world we're in is actually the modern one was a jolt sometimes.
Great characters are the centre of the book and the story is driven forwards to an unexpected conclusion; you see things are starting to fall apart somewhat but never know where the pieces might end up.
I have also bought Tartt's The Goldfinch and look forward to reading it.
At a recent visit to the RA, I saw the book The New English, a history of the New English Art Club, on sale at half price and bought it. I read it before visiting the NEAC annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries at the weekend and it was a good background. The art world is often full of strange characters and competition, and also some biting criticism. The NEAC often had to contend with the same question asked every few years: is it "new", and what makes it "English"? A worthwhile read but with some great pictures of course.
And so to the 2017 exhibition. Very good as usual and a stand out painting is one others also picked out. This was a large Peter Brown painting, really capturing a very rainy street in Bath :
Above: Absolutely Chucking it Down, George Street, Bath, Peter Brown, Oil, 152x191cm
This was awarded the "The NEAC Critics'" prize for 2017. Very deservedly I think.
The LLEWELLYN ALEXANDER gallery at Waterloo is having its annual show of RA Summer Show rejects, Not the Royal Academy. Always worth a visit anytime, the show this year is full of some wonderful stuff. What gets in to the RA show is very subjective obviously: they don't always get it right.
This painting is not on their web site but I liked it so much they sent me a copy.
Tiptoe Through the Tulips, Oliver Canti, Oil pastel on board.
A really lovely painting and a snip at £1250.
I've seen a few funerals at St Patrick's Church in Wapping since my work moved here in January. One funeral had a bit of an entourage, including a horse and carriage for the coffin, but nothing was like the recent funeral for Willie Malone.
The Malone funeral was on a very hot day, so I felt some sympathy for everyone in a suit and tie and there were a lot of people around dressed up. In the café, I was told a bit of background about the deceased, being well known and referred to as "Mr Tea". A real "East End" mix of people, and there were also a couple of (what I guessed were) press photographers. In fact, a report was in the East London Advertiser, with lots of pictures. Apparently, there was a bit of "colour" in his life.
I came by it because the church is across the road from The Turk's Head, a good café/bar I often go to for a coffee at lunchtime. I took my main camera that day, planning on a walk around the sights and taking some pictures.
From the Turk's Head web site :
the original building was once famous for being the local inn where the last quart of ale was served to condemned pirates on their way from Newgate to the Execution Dock
This is the larger acrylic painting, completed following a recent Will Kemp tutorial video course (also see A Rough Venice a few days ago). This is the largest painting I have done, and should have been even larger. The course has a canvas at 24x24" but I used a 16x16" one, which seemed large enough to me at the time! I've been doing my painting in oils recently, so using acrylic again was a refreshing change.
Overall, I am happy with it even though I didn't really get to the end of the painting I think. I did up to the "glazing" part of the course but didn't do the palette knife work: a bit afraid I'd mess up something up that wasn't too bad at the time (I took a photograph of it before and after the glazinng anyway, just in case). I even debated stopping before the glazing work but decided to try and finish the course and I'm glad I did.
Below: Venice Sunset, acrylic, 16x16" - pre-glazing
Below: Venice Sunset, acrylic, 16x16" - post-glazing
After the glazing I think I petered out at the end and then stopped. I'm slightly tempted to go back to it but I think that's it; you move on. Painting a sunset, or Venice, can also be a dangerous thing; a sunset picture can always veer into a lurid, colourful monstrosity. Hopefully not here! On to the next work ...
The painting called for some strong cadmium orange. I had some Winsor and Newton but it never stood out like the orange I saw on Kemp's video. I bought some Golden brand and it was stronger and worked better. This is not to knock W&N (good paints) but does highlight colour range per brand and how important any one particular colour can be to the overall effect.
I had another colour problem with another painting, a copy of one by a well known artist. The background blue was of a certain shade, I only had ultramarine blue and didn't think anything of it. But you discover that you cannot mix the right shade at all. Sometimes you really can't get there from here mixing colours! I found an old W&N cerulean blue which worked nicely.
This is a small acrylic painting done following a recent Will Kemp tutorial video course. There's a larger main painting to come (which I've "completed") and I'll post that separately. This study is quick and rough but still presentable I think, even if not originally designed to be a fully finished "proper" painting.
Below: San Giorgio Maggiore, acrylic on board, 6x8"
There is a very textured surface. This is an acrylic coarse modelling paste mixed in with the ground colour used, and adds the rough texture you can see. This can make for a more interesting painting experience sometimes.
On my way to the RA last week, I did some art gallery window shopping in New Bond Street and saw a notice in the window of the Richard Green Gallery about an S.J. Peploe exhibition coming up. Peploe's a well known Scottish Colourist painter of the early 20th Century; an artist and a group of artists I like. The Glasgow and Edinburgh Galleries have a few but you do not get many opportunities to see more unless you do much more travelling.
A good small exhibition of some lovely paintings, particularly the still lives. If you're in the area pop in. You can also see the catalogue online.
Still Life of Pink and Red Roses in a Chinese Vase
Oil on canvas, 25x25", 1918-1922
Some were from a private collection, some for sale. The price for a larger canvas like this was getting close to a million (pounds sterling).
Apples and Pears
Oil on canvas, 18x21.5", 1918
By Emily St. John Mandel
Existence is very fragile, as is civilisation, and few think about the perils of living without running water or electricity. They are exactly the sort of thing you need to do if you're writing a book like this though. If a virulent flu virus was ever to sweep the world again, as one did in 1918, civilisation might come to crashing halt.
Emily St. John Mandel's novel tells the story of some people caught up in such a calamity, as things fall apart after a new flu epidemic kills most of the planet's inhabitants. There is enough realism here to make you face the likely effects, a horror or what it means as everything stops working and people die, but she doesn't dwell on the horror and this is not a horror story. Switching between a select few characters whose lives intersect in some way pre and post-fall, the story never becomes morbid or hopeless. Kirsten, one of the main characters, acts in a travelling theatre and orchestra, staging Shakespeare to scattered survivors living in various settlements in the American and Canadian heartland. There is no one main character but enough characterisation is done to create believable people.
When I got to the end of the book, there was some sort of "study guide": questions a teacher might ask students to think or write about. Although the book does not seem to have a "young adult" label anywhere I could see, it had that feel about it. I think I started to consider this about half way through; perhaps the lack of swearing. This was nothing I missed.
A good novel and one I enjoyed.
The RA has another "Academician in Focus", Fred Cuming. I'd never heard of him, but this means nothing: there are so many great but unknown and to-be-discovered artists in the world, dead and alive. I really like his work and made sure I had a good look before my visit to the gallery today. He's over 80 now and still going strong.
To see larger versions, and more, visit the RA site.
A useful blog post went over similar territory recently and it's worth a read. It explains the reason why this learning method is so good, including mention of the actual research behind it. We all know that to hold a piece of knowledge in your head requires you to "imprint" it; then occasionally reinforce the memory. But how often and when should this be reinforced, for the best results? This is where the research comes in handy, distilled into an app :
Noise of Time
By Julian Barnes
When you chop wood, the chips fly: that's what the builders of socialism liked to say. Yet what if you found, when you laid down your axe, you had reduced the whole timberyard to nothing but chips?
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, the first Julian Barnes I've read. It tells the story of Dmitri Shostakovich, the famous Russian composer, in his own words, as he lives and tries to survive the calamitous 20th Century. Born before the Bolshevik Revolution, he lived his entire working life in Soviet Russia, much of it under Stalin, with all that meant.
The book is very funny in parts, but also sad and poignant. There are some beautiful descriptions of the strange life one has to lead in such a world and the contradictions he faced. And of course, the compromises made. A wonderful book about a man who knew his limitations and struggled to create his art under the most trying circumstances.
By Michel Houellebecq
Quite a timely novel, and it caused a bit of stir on release a year or so ago. In the near future (I think 2020 or so in the book), the French Presidential election run-off comes down to Marine Le Pen of the Front National and an Islamic Party. In this alternate election, both the Right and the Left in France have imploded and the Muslim Brotherhood party just pip the Socialists to the run-off. France looks to be headed to civil war and to stave off calamity, the Socialists and Islamists strike a deal, win the election and form a government. Crazy?
It's very funny in parts, and Houellebecq writes a very good, jaded French Professor, an expert in a particular 19th Century French writer. The ennui of an academic. He's apolitical and uninterested in much of what's going on, other than it distracts from chasing girls. In the end, big changes actually happen and the French establishment seem to accept it.
Maybe a bit far-fetched but Houellebecq has fun with it and the book's a quick and easy read. It's interesting reading a French perspective but also quite unsettling in the matter of fact way a societal change like this might get rationalised. On the big day, the media seems to have a bit of a blackout, and mobile communications go down. There's a hint of smoke in the distance, gun shots and one or two bodies seen; but then maybe we can get used to the new order?
For the Professor, a large pay rise is one welcome thing on the cards, but what really sets him thinking about the future is the dangling of the likelihood of an arranged wife, maybe more than one. All satire of course, and it is funny in parts, which makes up for the fact that it's only a slight "novel" and many characters are only hooks for him to hang some political and economic background..
So, finally Le Pen is crushed again and President Macron takes the crown. But as Peter Hitchens writes, what happens next time around?
His column is worth a read and very thought-provoking. Houellebecq's novel worries you in a similar way.
At the Mall Galleries for the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition 2017, I saw the usual amazingly wide selection of portraits of all types and sizes. It is always very humbling seeing such a selection of beautiful art. A couple of pieces struck me in passing.
The first, Becky by Raoof Haghighi, is so detailed it is astonishing. It is not a large painting, but he even paints the small fine hairs on her face. The second is The Four of Us by Leslie Watts, an amazing pencil drawing, again highly realistic and beautifully finished.
Below: Becky, Raoof Haghighi, Acrylic, 40 x 30 cm
Below: The Four of Us, Leslie Watts, Graphite & wax, 50 x 40 cm
A few weekends ago, I happened to walk past the Cartoon Museum near the British Museum. I've often thought about visiting (when I remember it exists) and saw there was an exhibition on called Future Shock! 40 Years of 2000 AD. I have fond memories of 2000 AD, so this was a great opportunity to have a look at the place.
I just about remember buying the first issue of 2000 AD and was hooked. It came out in 1977: an annus mirabilis for science-fiction fans and small boys (Star Wars was released the same year). Saturday mornings stepped up a gear. There was another man in the museum with his children and I mentioned buying the first issue to him, and he said he had as well (they had issue number 3 on display I think).
With 2000 AD costing 8p, I also remember the shock I had getting to the counter at the big London comic book shop Dark They Were and Golden Eyed (in a much seedier St. Anne's Court) and realising I couldn't afford the comics I wanted (at all of 35p each, if I recall). The difference here was they were US imports. My grandad didn't have an extra couple of pounds on him either, if I recall, and no plastic cards in the wallet either. Those were the days, and Soho's changed a lot since then as well (never mind inflation).
For Star Wars, I remember the special trip (twice) to London's Leicester Square to see the film and being awe-struck with it, from the thunderous first shot through the big cinema sound system. Science-fiction and comics are so mainstream now but back then it was all very new. 1977 was the birth year of a massive new media industry of films, comics, TV and technology. Back then there was no internet, and only three TV channels; now we have wall to wall media saturation. In some ways, not altogether better for it.
By William Golding
From Milton's Paradise Lost:
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.
Golding's novel is a tale of good and evil, morality and immorality. The nameless young boy who survives the Blitz though horribly burned down one side of his face and body is given the name "Matty", and we follow his odd progress through life. There's something strange with him: he sees "ghosts" and has memorised the bible. He does not know "what he is". The second strange character is Sophy, one half of a set of twins. Her sister Toni grows up, runs away and seems to be some sort of terrorist. There also seems to be something wrong with Sophy. Not only does she see a "Sophy-thing" inside her head, she can play act an innocence and take advantage of a keen intelligence, and a female body. Matty and Sophy are unsettling protagonists and it makes for uncomfortable reading being in their heads sometimes.
I had quite a bit of trouble with Darkness Visible, sometimes losing the sense of the narrative and re-reading a section to try and pick it up. I often couldn't, especially the strange inner landscapes of Matty's or Sophy's head. The last Golding book I read was Lord of the Flies, a long time ago for a school exam and I felt I needed crib book with notes again. This might explain some of my difficulty here; or maybe I'm a bit denser than I used to be. However, the book had a power that kept me reading to the end even though I knew that I probably would not understand it.
Nobel Prize winning authors are definitely trickier to read sometimes.
A Long Way to Shiloh
By Lionel Davidson
This novel should have been great: an author I know can write absolutely stunning adventure books full of great characters and action, and a backdrop of ancient history, Jewish scriptures, archaeology and treasure hunting. Unfortunately, the book is quite lacklustre. It really must have been an off day for Davidson. The main character, an English academic and archaeologist, is also quite an unlikeable man: a drunkard and a sexist. Not an awful lot happened really, and you were in his company all the time.
John Singer Sargent's Lady Agnew of Lochnaw is a very famous and accomplished painting, now hanging in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. In this YouTube video, American artist John Howard Sanden paints a copy of it over the course of about three hours (split over two videos) :
It is fascinating watching him do this, also a little hypnotic seeing the painting come together. He explains his thought process and what he thought Sargent did at the time he painted the original in 1892. There are many art tutorial channels and videos on YouTube and this is one of the best I've seen. As Sanden says, all the great art masters copied the great works of past masters, including Sargent. I think the final result is extremely good.
The video itself seems to be from an old tape video from the The Portrait Institute in New York. Unfortunately, it might well be an illegal upload because it starts with a warning about "duplication". So the YouTube video might disappear. In some ways this would be a shame: I had never heard of Sanden, or the Institute, but now I know what a good painter and teacher he is.
Edit: Fixed spelling on Sargent's lastname.
by Bram Stoker
Dracula is a book impossible to come to without preconceptions today; it has been read, adapted and discussed so much that it has seeped into the modern imagination almost completely. I disliked almost all the film adaptations over the years, particularly the Hammer versions, and for many years these killed the character and any desire to read the book. However, a few weeks ago I found myself wanting to pick up the book for some reason and I am very glad I did : I thoroughly enjoyed it and it really is a classic.
The initial arc of the story: the eerie journey through the dark forest, wolves and strange coachman, the forbidding castle, creaking and rusting doors, superstitious peasants, all seem so familiar today. One might even groan a little inside recalling a satire like Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein film. So much cliché; but the story soon forges on and becomes exciting. This was quite new and fresh when written all the way back at the end of the 19th Century.
This is at heart a great adventure book, with action and drama, and above all, fright. Surprisingly, given how much the story's been rehashed, it still has a huge power to shock and surprise with real horror. Some of this is due to the characters themselves; characters I actually cared for, particularly the stricken Mina Harker herself. A very good book with some great and powerful moments; and still not for any faint-hearts.
A History of Christianity
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
This is the reason there was a significant hiatus on any reading updates recently. An immense subject and a very big book is to blame!
At over a thousand pages, I picked up MacCulloch's book with some trepidation but having read his history of the Reformation a few years ago, and heard him talk many times on radio, I know how good he is, as a writer and speaker. MacCulloch's history of Christianity covers "three thousand" years because he considers the genesis of the story as starting long before the time of Herod "the Great": with the Jews, and then the Ancient Greek and Roman world. A useful starting point I think because Greek philosophy and Roman mores come to play very important roles in Christian thought and belief. Some might say, too much.
The thought and philosophy of Christians has sometimes been that of extremes, both good and bad. To many people throughout the world, it was literally a matter of eternal life or eternal damnation however, and this mattered a great deal: so much so, that people were willing to kill and be killed. In addition, theology can also hinge on some very subtle distinctions that are hard to grasp now. Be prepared for some theology then, but if you are prepared, this is fascinating and well written. MacCulloch has a dry wit and can sometimes brings a smile (or even laugh) throughout, keeping the narrative alive and interesting.
So far, always an excellent writer and historian.
You can't really argue with Michelangelo (not even Pope's do that successfully), which meant a second visit to the National Gallery for the Michelangelo & Sebastiano show.
Part of the interest here is learning more about some of the daily routine, rough competitiveness and petty jealousies of these top artists. Michelangelo was a notoriously prickly person but warmed to Sebastiano, helping him with his composition and anatomy. This seems to have been driven by his hatred of his younger rival for work, Raphael, who many considered the better overall painter. Michelangelo worked with Sebastiano as a way to win commissions from Raphael, and a form of one-upmanship. No friendly rivalry here.
There are some amazing pieces of work in the show of course, including a cast of Michelangelo's masterpiece Pieta, his Taddeo Tondo and Sebastiano's Raising of Lazarus. One of my favourites is Sebastiano's Judith (below), a smaller painting but with a real character, and beautifully painted.
There's a good overview of the show and the two artists by the curator, Matthias Wivel, on YouTube. The National Gallery has a channel of its own as well, and is well worth a browse. Some great talks in front of various works.
As I stood in front of The Raising of Lazarus, I thought to myself: that's quite an amazing frame! The painting itself is very large, almost 4m high and almost 3m wide, and the frame is impressively large and solid as well :
Looking for some information on the frame,I discovered a very interesting blog all about frames by Lynn Roberts, a picture frame expert. The blog is called The Frame Blog and has a recent post about the Lazarus frame itself, covering the paintings reframing in great detail. It really is a fascinating post, accompanied by a video :
I'll almost certainly return again I think.