Wed, 23 Jul 2014
Making Colour, National Gallery

It was a toss up between the National Portrait Gallery with the BP Portrait Show or the National Gallery with Making Colour. I decided on Making Colour on Sunday, the paid show, and will check out the portraits over the week.

Making Colour is about the colour in paint pigment: where the colour comes from and how it's created and bound (such as egg yolk for egg tempera or oil for oil paint). The technology of paint changed once the industrial revolution kicked into gear, to the great benefit of artists.

Today we generally don't care where the things we buy come from, or how they were made, but much of what we take for granted didn't exist, or was very expensive. Colours themselves were extremely expensive sometimes and paint didn't come in an easy to handle tube. For this reason, artists were as much artisans and had to learn a huge amount of technical preparation and mixing, in addition to the creative side of their work. A lot of paint pigment is ground up "rock": consider the "earth" colours like raw umber. Historically, the most expensive have been the rarest, like Lapis Lazuli, mined in far away Afghanistan, giving the rare and intense Ultramarine blue. An artist's contract would often be very specific in requiring the use of real ultramarine for the Virgin's coat.

The Wilton Diptych (below) is a very good example of the beautiful blue you can create with ultramarine. This picture was not shown in the exhibition but is one I always think of when I think of a striking blue colour. It really has to be seen in person to appreciate how intense it is.

Wilton Diptych, 1395-9.

Today, Ultramarine is easily affordable and has been chemically synthesised from the early 19th Century.

Another couple of paintings that I thought worth remarking on are below, both unknown to me. The Moroni painting Portrait of a Lady is large and imposing, rather like the sitter. I loved her expression: slightly pursed, a hint of a smile. She seems a bit pleased with herself, perhaps pleased with her beautiful dress.

Portrait of a Lady ('La Dama in Rosso').
Giovanni Battista Moroni. 1556-60.

The full size painting is a real fashion statement. Great colour of course, and very bright.

The second painting is by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, working in the late 18th Century in France, an exciting time to be alive (especially if you were patronised particularly by Queen Marie Antoinette. She has a straw hat on and she's working, her palette in her left hand.

Self Portrait in a Straw Hat.
Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. 1782.

The full size painting.

I like this painting a lot. Not only a pretty face, but a nice loose, bright painting. Not formalised like a Ingres or David.

I've been down to the NPG to see the 2014 Portrait Award show now and, as usual, it is very good. There are a huge number of very good artists around today, many very technically accomplished. This show consistently has a high standard.

Mon, 14 Jul 2014

An apple. A start anyway!

This is an acrylic painting of an apple - see below for the inspiration. I've been wanting to do some painting for a while, something I used to do a lot of before being distracted with work and life. It's been a long time.

I can't say that I love the painting, or that I think it's very good, but it's not bad and I'm quite happy with it. As a first attempt anyway. I think my photograph of it leaves a little to be desired as well ...

I find acrylics much easier to deal with than oil paints, mainly due to them being water based, so no smells or complex preparation or clean-up. This makes a big difference when you don't have much space (let alone time).

Hopefully more to come. I have a lot to learn.

The inspiration for this, and the source of the above apple is Will Kemp's Art School. He not only has a great web site devoted to all aspects of painting and drawing but a huge enthusiasm. His willingness to share his knowledge and help out is absolutely wonderful (popping up all the time in the comments) - I don't know how he finds the time. Also check out his YouTube channel. I find watching people paint fascinating. A very refreshing site and a great teacher. Thanks Will!

Fri, 11 Jul 2014
Watch out, Flash ...

Another recent Adobe Flash security update has me at the Adobe site again, trying to remember the update process for Linux. I use the 64 bit version and have to un-tar the archive and copy the .so to the right folder.

Adobe stopped shipping new versions of Flash for Linux a while back, but promised to keep the Linux versions updated for security (Thanks Adobe). But it's still odd seeing the different versions available for the other platforms.

I have :

Windows, Mac and Google Chrome have :

Note that the version Adobe say is the latest for Linux is wrong - 378, compared to what I just downloaded and installed - 394. Who knows? Security is hard, as is updating web pages!

Not a fan of Flash and I look forward to it disappearing. But I'm even less a fan of computer security problems, and especially the people that inflict them on us. So keep your software up to date!

Sun, 29 Jun 2014
Life After Life

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

When I bought this book, looking for something of a change, all I knew about it was that it was highly regarded and had won a prize (Costa Award). I don't think I'd heard of Kate Atkinson. However, I was not long into it before realising that it promised to be one of the best I'd ever read. This doesn't happen very often and nearer the end, I really didn't want it to finish.

A very finely told story of a girl and her family, the effects of the First World War and then the Second. The characters, and particularly the family life, are so beautifully realised. And the big difference to Ursula's life is that it ends, very early. But then starts again. Ends, Starts. And every time her path through life is different and we see and learn new things from different perspectives.

The book is very funny, as well as sad, even grim on occasion. It is also unforgettable and extremely moving. I can't recommend it enough. It's a book I look forward to reading again.

Mon, 16 Jun 2014
The Valiant and the Damned

Above, a wall display in at the National Portrait Gallery exhibition The Great War in Portraits. This is The Valiant and the Damned room.

Cutting across nationality, age, gender, background, role and responsibility, the group below includes medal-winners, heroes and celebrities, interspersed with those wounded, killed in action or shot at dawn. Between these poles of experience are poets, artists, memoirists, nurses, conscientious objectors, representatives of the British Commonwealth and those exemplifying the important part played by women.

The gallery web site has an interactive page where you can select each person and read a bit of background. Some famous names here, including Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Von Richthofen and Mata Hari. Also some unusual ones, like a Maori and an Afro-Caribbean officer.

On the right, a German soldier wears an "improvised gas mask".

The exhibition finished on Sunday 15th June and was free. Small but worthwhile. The web site has some very good content. As well as the Valiant and the Damned page above, there is also a Curator's Tour.

Sun, 15 Jun 2014
Bring Up the Bodies, RSC

The second of the two Mantel stage adaptations, after Wolf Hall a couple of weeks ago.

I was not disappointed. This was another masterful production, wonderful script and great acting. The RSC and everyone involved have made a real masterpiece. Laugh out loud funny at times, at others a dread horror at what's happening on stage (a silent theatre, pin-drop).

Telling the story of the downfall of Anne Boleyn, the machinations that take place are nothing if not like the Italian Mafia as fictionalised in Coppola's Godfather films. Cromwell is charming and witty but he is also cold, calculating and ruthless as he tries to do the King's bidding in the Tudor court. He has to have his wits about him because the double-dealing, plotting and hatreds run deep.

As the play reaches its climax, one starts to feel the chill as we get to see some of the darker methods at play, as Cromwell works his way around the Queen's inner circle, probing for information, weakness. We also start to see bit more of the child-like Jane Seymour, a girl Henry's become infactuated with: no artifice here, no worldliness at all it seems. Jane is portrayed as painfully shy, empty-headed and witless, She doesn't deserve what's in store: we know how this story ends.

Man is wolf to man.

Fri, 13 Jun 2014
Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark

Who started the First World War? This is something that Christopher Clark, an Australian historian, considers in his recent book The Sleepwalkers. This year is the centenary of the start of the "war to end all wars" and his book has been very well received.

So who did start the war? Lots of people, some eminent, have expended a great deal of time, money and effort trying to determine the answer to that. It's proven very hard to nail down. For a start, this is not an exact science, but a lot of pre-war action and debate has been hidden, obfuscated or forgotten as well.

Clark assigns blame very liberally, with no one really understanding what a calamity the war would be, and no one realising how long it would last. The world was different and the power blocs were increasinly locked into alliances that set rigid "red lines", promising aggressive action (i.e. war) that should never have been countenanced before. Much less flexibility. Everyone seemed to consider themselves as having their backs to the wall and seeing their behaviour as defensive, even as their armies crossed national borders.

Like many boys, I was fascinated with war, battles and the two big wars of the 20th Century. But the books I read were much more interested in the actual fighting of the war than their causes. In fact, my most abiding memory now of this history is more the literary, and the great war poets like Wilfred Owen.

This book definitely shatters a few myths however.

The biggest one is that Germany was the primary cause and the major aggressor. It is hard to read this book and still believe that. Although it certainly bore much blame, in the hierarchy of causes, France and Russia sit as high, or even higher. And let's not forget Serbia, a nation dreaming of a mythical past glory almost within its grasp again, reuniting a Southern Slavdom under its leadership. Willing to use every underhand and odious means to progress this e.g. The Black Hand.

Yes, lots of blame to pass around. A good book and a useful reminder that history and propaganda are sometimes far too comfortable bed-fellows.

Fri, 06 Jun 2014
Wolf Hall, RSC

People might know how highly I rate Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Amongst the best books I've read.

Earlier this week I went to see a stage production of Wolf Hall at the Aldwych Theatre. It was superb. Back when I first heard of the planned theatre shows, I worried that an abridgement and transfer wouldn't work in the theatre. Luckily I was very wrong. The reviews that started to appear were all so glowing, I was completely mistaken in worrying about the stage version, and should have trusted the skill of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The books are beautifully written, a real pleasure to read, and the highlight of the stage play is how well they has been adapted by Mike Poulton. Alongside such a good script, the acting was also first class.

Having bought a ticket for Wolf Hall, I've now got one for Bring Up the Bodies in a week. If you get a chance to see these, take it!

Sat, 24 May 2014
Electric Colour

I've never been a big admirer of David Hockney's work in general but really liked the colourful landscapes he's started "painting" in the last few years. Since his return to England from America he's been experimenting with creating very colourful art on his iPad.

Many charcoal studies and the full colour prints of his iPad landscapes are on show at Annely Juda Fine Art in London.

The pictures are large and very striking! Including a lovely slow tracking shot of a snowy country road on a bank of TV's (at least when I was there). He paints the same scene at very different times of the year: summer, rain, snow.

The gallery has a good Hockney page with lots of other paintings to see, some excellent. His golden age perhaps.

Sun, 11 May 2014


A strange word that caught my eye in the title of a BBC Radio 3 feature a few years ago, In Search of the Gododdin. Reading the summary piqued my interest even more :

Fourteen centuries ago an elite band of three hundred warriors set out from Edinburgh and marched south to Catterick in Yorkshire to meet a force of 10,000 Saxons in a bloody pitched battle. At the end of a week of ferocious combat all but three of the 300 lay dead and, with them, the last hope of the Old North - the original Britons - against the Saxon invaders. But the battle left an enduring literary legacy: one of the three survivors, Aneirin, fled back to Edinburgh and composed the Gododdin, an epic poem to commemorate his fallen comrades.

Of course it's not quite as simple as that, and we have to leave aside the numbers, but what an introduction to something I'd not only never heard of, but had no idea of a context for.

An epic poem called the Y Gododdin, written in early medieval Welsh, perhaps written in Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) and commemorating a battle in England between Britons and Angles.

There's a massive amount here we don't know for certain, a lot of conjecture, myth. We learn a standard history that often starts with the Romans, skips to a bit of Anglo-Saxons, jumps to the Normans and from then it's a quick romp to Empire and the Victorian 19th Century

There's much less certainty in the "Dark Ages" but we have to remember how much of our history is buried in odd corners like the Y Gododdin and the original tribes of Britain. These tribes didn't go away and were not exterminated. They're still here.