Thu, 19 Nov 2015
Benjamin Hope at The JP Gallery

I noticed a new art gallery on Saturday down on Battersea Rise (Clapham Junction), called the JP Art Gallery. A new artist called Benjamin Hope has his debut solo show here and I popped in to have a look.

Hope mainly works in oil and paints en plein air usually (meaning "outside" basically). Many of his paintings are in and around central London, including parts I know well, like Clapham and Westminster. He was at the gallery and we spoke briefly about his work and technique; I'm always interested in how an artist works.

I really like his paintings, which are generally muted and impressionistic. He captures a weak winter sunlight very well and doesn't fill the frame with to much detail or fuss.

Some of the work I liked most at the gallery does not seem to be displayed on his website, but this selection is fairly representative and pretty good. Coincidentally, I remembered seeing (and liking) the first one (Blackheath) at the Mall Galleries a few months ago.

Almost Spring-like, Blackheath

Looking West Along Queen's Gate Terrace

Hertford College Blossom

St Martin’s Place, Rain at Dusk

Sun, 15 Nov 2015
Casting Doubt

I visited the National Gallery's Goya, The Portraits again on Saturday. On my first visit, I was surprised not to see one of the gallery's own Goya portraits on show, Portrait of Doña Isabel de Porcel :

Francisco de Goya, Doña Isabel de Porcel,Oil on canvas, before 1805

This is a great painting, and one of my favourite paintings from the whole gallery.

However, according to a page on the gallery website, some scholars are casting some doubt as to whether it is an authentic Goya :

Although painted with tremendous flair, the picture’s brushwork – when compared with his other portraits – lacks Goya’s customary subtlety in describing transparencies and textures. The sitter, Isabel de Porcel, is extremely charismatic but we struggle to grasp her psychological state; something in which Goya’s portraits invariably excelled.

Maybe it isn't, but the painting remains accomplished and beautiful. There are a few portraits in the exhibition that I would say are mediocre, and some extremely good. This painting would be among the best.

It is also worth mentioning that art historians have a slightly sketchy record with authentication. See Eric Hebborn for example.

Sat, 14 Nov 2015
John Yardley at Llewellyn Alexander

Above: After the Shower – Venice

Down to Llewellyn Alexander again, unfortunately not missing the rain this morning! I mentioned that I was surprised he did so many watercolours (having thought he was mainly an oil painter), but discovered I was thinking of his son, Bruce Yardley.

John Yardley is a well known watercolour painter and the Llewellyn Alexander gallery has a good selection of his work in their new exhibition.

Below: Into the sun – Honfleur

From (what appear to be) very simple applications of blobs of colour, a few shapes and lines, he conjures up amazing pictures that perfectly capture a moment. A very impressionistic watercolour style, and very impressive results.

Less is sometimes more. Take a look at the rest of the pictures on the website, or better still, pop in and have a look in person.

Tue, 03 Nov 2015
The Martian

I went to see the film of the book, and thought it was excellent (as expected). Like the book, it was funny, intelligent and gave a good (if not always completely accurate) scientific background to the adventure. It left a few things out, but it was clear that they were dropped to keep things going, and didn't harm the story in any way. The film was also very moving; emotion is where it surpassed the book.

A positive, exciting and ultimately uplifting story. At some point, we have to get off this planet, so I say: let's go to Mars!.

Mon, 02 Nov 2015
What's the Point of the Financial System?

This is a question John Kay asks in his recent Google Talk, answering with four things he thinks it should be for e.g.

  • Payment system
  • Wealth management
  • Risk mitigation
  • Capital allocation

An ironic point he makes is that the current structure and incentives in the financial system is such that far from mitigating risk, it massively increases it. A depressing thought is that it will take the next crisis for us to move to properly fix the system.

This 40-odd minute talk is worth your time :

Sun, 01 Nov 2015
The Blockchain - Trust but Verify

There was a BBC radio program a few weeks ago on the Blockchain called FutureProofing. The blockchain is a clever bit of applied encryption that let's people keep an accurate "ledger" of different types of transactions, a ledger that is open, distributed and easy to verify as being true. Its most famous application just now, and the reason it was invented, is its use by bitcoin, the electronic currency.

The Economist magazine has a better explanation of the blockchain and why it's so interesting :

The great chain of being sure about things

All sorts of companies and public bodies suffer from hard-to-maintain and often incompatible databases and the high transaction costs of getting them to talk to each other. This is the problem Ethereum, arguably the most ambitious distributed-ledger project, wants to solve. The brainchild of Vitalik Buterin, a 21-year-old Canadian programming prodigy, Ethereum’s distributed ledger can deal with more data than bitcoin’s can. And it comes with a programming language that allows users to write more sophisticated smart contracts, thus creating invoices that pay themselves when a shipment arrives or share certificates which automatically send their owners dividends if profits reach a certain level. Such cleverness, Mr Buterin hopes, will allow the formation of “decentralised autonomous organisations”—virtual companies that are basically just sets of rules running on Ethereum’s blockchain.

Sat, 31 Oct 2015
Day of the Dead

I was at the British Museum today, a very special day for The Celts in fact, this evening being Samhain, the end of the Celtic summer. Edinburgh will be hosting a Fire Festival.

The ancient rituals have metamorphosed over the years into the Christian All Hallows Eve, now better known as Halloween. The museum was celebrating this through its Day of the Dead incarnation, with music and giant puppets. Quite impressive actually.

Just passing through, my destination was another visit to The Celts, which I plan on writing a bit about, having also just about finished a good book on their history. A good chance to look at the beautiful Great Torc :

I wrote about this object a while ago.

The Great Court was, perhaps, a little bright and sunny for giant walking skeletons!

Sun, 25 Oct 2015
To Mars and .. Back!

The Martian
by Andy Weir

Mark Watney's the best botanist on the planet. Also the best engineer, programmer, geologist, astronomer and pretty much everything. Unfortunately, he's the only person on the planet ...

With the film publicity in sight, I bought the book on the spur of the moment and thought I'd read it before a visit to the cinema. I'm glad I did because the book's excellent: exciting and also very funny. In fact, it's laugh-out-loud funny on occasion as the marooned astronaut Mark Watney tries to figure out how to get back home.

Watney's not only very resourceful but a bit of a comedian, and early on in the book I was a little unsure about its humour and lightheartedness, not normally my cup of tea. But I persevered and am so glad I did. This is a wonderful adventure story, with great characters as well as believable science. If the math and science is not a strong point for you, let it wash over you, and it never distracts from the story.

Now I want to see the film, which I hear is good as well. Maybe this sort of book/film combination is an antidote to some of the more mindless stupidity around nowadays at the cinema.

Sat, 24 Oct 2015

By Peter Watts

I read Peter Watts' Blindsight a few months ago (a free e-book download from his website) and recently bought and read his sequel Echopraxia. I re-read Blindsight as a refresher before starting the followup. The book Firefall contains both stories.

Blindsight is one of those books that's good to read on an e-reader because you can easily look up words you don't understand. This is a very useful feature I miss when I read dead-tree books now, and a well used feature for both Blindsight and Echopraxia. I have a science background and enjoy the extrapolation of books like these, but Echopraxia was a bit mystifying to me on some occasions.

Blindsight is a novel about first contact, and the odd crew of people sent to find out what might be lurking in the Oort cloud. So, aliens and spaceships. But this is far from a normal "alien" and "spaceship" novel, and the book is as much about us (humans) as them (the aliens). We can be quite "alien" ourselves and getting stranger all the time. Well written, good (if sometimes odd) characters and interesting discussion of evolution and consciousness: particularly about whether consciousness is actually required to function (and exhibit intelligence) and what advantages it may (or may not) have. This is not the sort of thing that comes up often. Neither do spare-faring vampires, a species brought back to life my modern homo-sapiens because they're much better than baseline people like us at a lot of things. The captain of the team on the spaceship Theseus in Blindsight is a vampire.

Echopraxia is the sequel and takes place on the Earth Blindsight's crew have left. An Earth in the late 21st Century and starting to fall apart. There are many very interesting ideas here but the big problem for me was that I just couldn't understand some of it, especially towards the end. I think I understand it a bit better now but I cheated and read Watts' "explanation" on his web site.

Maybe I need to read it again, but that's going to have to wait a while. Watts gets an A+ for a thought-provoking and interesting near-future adventure though.

Peter Watts has an interesting web site where you can read a lot of background to his stories. He's a writer that does a lot of research and includes and discusses it in the book's appendices. These are definitely worth a look, and I found them a fascinating overview of where some of the current scientific thinking is.

Mon, 05 Oct 2015

I joined the British Museum, which gives me free access to their shows, members' lounge and a few other things. My second visit as a member was to the exhibition Drawing in silver and gold, a look at the metalpoint drawing style (my first was to the new Celts show but more on that later).

On the north side, up the stairs, this is in the museum's print and drawing display space, a lovely big room, well set up to show off works by Leonardo, Raphael, Dürer and other masters.

Above: detail from Leonardo da Vinci,
A Bust of a Warrior, c. 1475/1480, silverpoint

Metalpoint (link to silverpoint) is a drawing technique used from medieval times, through the renaissance and even to the present day (with a 19th Century revival). It uses a metal stylus (sharp or blunt) to "draw" on a prepared surface (slightly abrasive ground): the stylus leaving a small amount of the metal on the paper, giving the drawing.

I wasn't sure why the artist would use metalpoint over a pencil (graphite) but a helpful page of information in the Cornelissen art shop window (round the corner from the museum) explained. Graphite pencils were not invented until the 16th and (properly) 17th Centuries, and artists wanted something more permanent for their drawings than charcoal.

Some beautiful, detailed and delicate drawings on display. Some favourite artists below. I was particularly struck by how good the work of Hendrick Goltzius was.

Below: Hendrick Goltzius, Young Woman Reading a Book (Portrait of Sophia Goltzius, Sister of the Artist?), Seen from Above, 1591, metalpoint (probably silverpoint) on prepared paper or parchment.

Below: Joseph Edward Southall, Head of a Girl, 1899,
 metalpoint (probably silverpoint) with scratching on prepared paper

Below: Otto Dix, Old Woman, 1932,
 metalpoint (probably silverpoint) and graphite (?) on prepared paper,

Dix is perhaps better known as a one of the Nazi's least favourite artists, someone who created some horrible depictions of war, wounds and disfigurement. This picture has a lot of charm, even wistfulness about it however, a true character.

More interesting detail can be found on the British Museum's blog.