Tue, 12 Dec 2017
Rolling the Dice

Rubicon
By Tom Holland

Score: 5/5

The late Roman Republic had no shortage of great people and large talents, a usually constant competition to amass the most money and prestige, elbowing out the competition, and in some cases, getting them exiled (or killed). This period of ancient history has held a fascination for a lot of writers and historians over the years and it is easy to see why. The personalities and exploits are often so outrageous that it is quite amazing that they happened over the course of barely fifty years. In a good writer's hands, these stories are still exciting, and sometimes appalling. There is also a lot to recognise from our own times.

Luckily, Tom Holland is a very good writer and historian and has written a superb history book, one of the best I've read. I can thoroughly recommend this, even to those who might be averse to "history". This is the opposite of dry.


Sat, 09 Dec 2017
Portrait Demo

At the ROI show this morning again and artist Adebanji Alade was doing a demonstration of portrait painting in the main space.

He made a great start, capturing a very good likeness. This was a "drawing" phase in thin, diluted brown oil paint, getting the proportions and large shapes down, before moving on to the darks, mid-tones and then lights. He has quite a presence and is very personable and fun to listen to. He made sure to describe the steps he did and why; it was really useful listening to him talk.

He has some work in the show this year and a great web site. This includes some video clips of him painting on the BBC.


Thu, 07 Dec 2017
Bubbleonomics

A few financial or property bubbles around just now: Sweden has a bit of a housing bubble, Australia as well. The Economist has an article about another one: Bitcoin.

One bitcoin has jumped in value from $1,000 to over $10,000 this year, making some people very rich indeed. That's if they can sell them because it's not such a liquid market. As the article says about each Bitcoin transaction :

Each transaction has to be verified by “miners” who need a lot of computing power to do so, and a lot of energy: 275kWh for every transaction, according to Digiconomist, a website. In total, bitcoin uses as much electricity a year as Morocco, or enough to power 2.8m American households. All this costs much than processing credit-card transactions via Visa or MasterCard.

There are people who are starting to worry about whether bitcoin mining will impact "climate change" plans. As for bubbles and their end-game, they also note :

Some remember Nathan Rothschild’s remark about the secret of his wealth: “I always sold too soon.”

Bitcoin seems to have climbed to $17,000, adding over $4,000 in less than a day! It's so volatile that who would want to use it as currency? Who knows what it is now ...


Tue, 05 Dec 2017
Modigliani at the Tate

The Tate Gallery has had some very good exhibitions on recently, and with more to come, I decided to become a member. My first visit as a member was to Tate Modern on a horrible grey drizzly Sunday morning for the Modigliani show. I really like this early Twentieth Century Italian artist: his angular, colourful paintings are instantly recognisable and classic "modern" art.

Right: Jeanne Hébuterne, Oil on canvas, 1919, 91.4 x 73 cm

Below: Jean Cocteau, Oil on canvas, 1916, 100.4 x 81.3 cm

Above: Portrait of a Girl, Oil paint on canvas, 1917, 806 x 597 mm

The exhibition was excellent, with a lot of paintings and some drawings. Iconic portraits and the classic nudes. One of the subjects was Jean Cocteau (see above), a lovely painting but one where Cocteau (who bought it) said :

It does not look like me, but it does look like Modigliani, which is better.

Tate Modern is cavernous, and can be drafty. An enormous and impressive space but one that they sometimes have trouble filling. So, meanwhile in the main space, they put a soft carpet down with a playground at the bottom and, as the families appear, it is soon taken over by children of all sizes, many small ones lying down and rolling from the top. Quite funny to see actually. Enough of this pompous art stuff! Thoughts I've sometimes had in this building.


Sun, 03 Dec 2017
ROI 2017

The 2017 Royal Institute of Oil Painters Annual Exhibition is on just now and, as usual, has many very good paintings in it. Even one or two acrylic pieces. One of many good artists on display is Lucy McKie, a phenomenally good realist oil painter. I would encourage you to check her web site to see how amazing her stuff can be.

Her picture of the bus (below) was used on the cover of the catalogue this year.

Lucy McKie was only one of many artists and paintings worth seeing however. The show is always worth a look, and only five minutes from Trafalgar Square. I'd like to go again, but note that it ends next weekend.

Below: Lucy McKie, Old Toy Bus on Glass
Below: Adventurer

Sat, 02 Dec 2017
Burnishing the Frame

The National Gallery has a good YouTube channel, with talks about paintings, discussions about exhibitions and behind the scenes looks. A good series for the season is called Gold, and one episode looks at how the framing department works. The gallery has a lot of frames to take care of, and many are very ornate with a lot of embossed gold to them. It also has a mention for one of the largest and most ornately framed paintings the gallery has, the painting The Raising of Lazarus.


Fri, 01 Dec 2017
Buried Giant

The Buried Giant
By Kazuo Ishiguro

Score: 1/5

I have wanted to read something by Ishiguro for a while and saw The Buried Giant for sale cheaply in a charity shop. This was about two weeks before the world learned that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Unfortunately, I found this book to be terribly dull and written in a very flat and boring way. Some sort of "fable", I started to wonder if it was aimed at children, or young adults. I kept on expecting something more to happen and be explained, perhaps a deeper significance to the novel. For this reason I pushed on and forced myself to finish it, but the ending was also a big disappointment. No doubt the Booker Prize winning Remains of the Day is better and I still plan on reading that. But avoid this one.


Tue, 28 Nov 2017
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
By John Le Carre

Score: 5/5

Another book I suddenly had an urge to read, and an author I want to read more of.

This is a real slow-burn of a book. Piece by piece, we build up a history of a cohort in the secretive world of the intelligence service. From their pre-war student lives to their war experience and then the post-war Cold War. Something is not quite right; an indication of a mole inside the organisation and the task of George Smiley is to dig the mole out. And this is what he turns himself to do: in a slow and methodical way he gathers evidence and starts to build a picture of the enemy and their accomplice inside the gates.

Le Carre has a great ear for the dialogue and patterns of speech and the characters are beautifully written. All the various code names and colour of life in the Circus alongside the 1970's colour of life in London as well. It's a rare book I start to try and postpone finishing, but I started to put the climax off as I approached the end. One of my favourite books.

Famously, Alec Guinness played George Smiley in the BBC's adaptation of the book, and it has also been re-made as a feature film recently/ I have not seen any of these but might try to. At least the Alec Guinness version, who I can picture as Smiley much more readily than Gary Oldman.


Tue, 14 Nov 2017
Going Down

The nicely monoschromatic stairway leading down to the National Gallery's Monochrome exhibition.

I wasn't expecting too much but was pleasantly surprised, with a lot to see and like; including a Chardin, Van Eyck and Dürer. Once I'd seen the exhibition, I had a look at the Degas.


Sun, 12 Nov 2017
Burrell in London

When I'm up in Scotland, I often mean to visit the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, but have never managed to get around to it yet, mainly due to the slight difficulty in getting there. Now it's closed for refurbishment until 2020.


Above: Le Foyer de l'Opera, c.1877-82 (pastel on board)

While closed however, the National Gallery in London has managed to borrow the Degas pictures and put on a free show. Degas was a very talented artist and, although usually considered alongside the Impressionists, he went his own way. Famous for his ballet dancers, he can really capture the human form and movement with a few strokes of the pen or brush, and his deep colourful style is also unmatched. Great at oil painting, perhaps even better at pastel painting.

A lovely small exhibition with a chance to see some great work.

Below: The Rehearsal, c. 1874. Oil on canvas

Mon, 06 Nov 2017
Midday Sun

This painting is used to illustrate the ROI Paint Live 2017 Challenge on the Mall Galleries web site just now.

Below: Midday Sun, David Curtis

I love the way he's painted the sunlight here. Great Painting.


Sun, 05 Nov 2017
Cézanne at the NPG

Paul Cézanne has always been an artist I've admired but most of his work I've seen has been his still-life and landscapes, the major part of his work. Apart from a mini-exhibition a few years ago at the Courtauld on his card-players, his paintings of people are not seen so often. The National Portrait Gallery in London has a new exhibition devoted to Cézanne Portraits that rectifies this.

Right: Hortense Fiquet in a Striped Skirt, 1877-78, Oil, 72.5 x 56 cm

The exhibition covers portraits he made throughout his life. The very early ones (pre-1870) are quite different however, and I have to admit that I really didn't like them at all. Dark and heavily painted with a palette knife, the paint was thick and spread around in large areas, almost as if by a trowel. I could see why they might be rejected from the Salon. Luckily, the earlier, uglier paintings are soon replaced by better ones.

Left: Man in a Blue Smock, 1896–97, Oil, 81.5 x 64.8 cm

Once we get into the 1870's, Cézanne finds his style, and thankfully also his brushwork. This brushwork often consists of the short, parallel and diagonal stroke we recognise from his landscapes; a style that distinguishes his art and what makes him so recognisable.

Not all are good and he struggled with figures sometimes, especially faces and expressions (sometimes very doll-like). The show is well worth a visit though. Cézanne is one of the great artists.

A blog post about the show at the NPG site.


Sat, 04 Nov 2017
Winds of War

Look to Windward
By Iain M. Banks

Score: 4/5

I read this a few weeks ago now but not managed to post about it. This was another very good Culture novel; one of the best I've read. Banks seems to get better as he wrote the series.

This book covers pain and loss of war, and the morality of revenge. All told from a very Banks viewpoint, with characters not always all they seem and technology of the "magic" variety (so high it seems like magic, per Arthur C Clarke's famous quote). A wonderful addition to the Culture universe with a beautiful and bittersweet resolution.


Wed, 01 Nov 2017
Goodbye Robert Graves

Goodbye to All That
By Robert Graves

Score: 4/5

An autobiography written at the age of 34 is slightly unusual, although it does not seem to stop the modern celebrity or TV star. Graves had weightier reasons however: surviving the slaughter in the trenches of the First World War.

I read his translations and rewriting of the Greek Myths a long time ago, and have also attempted to get through his White Goddess, but have never read or attempted his most famous works, the I, Claudius novels. Graves always considered himself a poet foremost, and describes his meeting and friendship with Sassoon here. He became very dispirited and somewhat bitter about the war, and who could blame him? This appalling event still casts a long shadow, and can even make me angry today. His background, class, education and whole milieu is from another age, long gone now and worth lamenting, at least in part. An interesting and original thinker and writer.


Sun, 01 Oct 2017
Colour, Scotland and France

I've been up to Edinburgh for a few days recently, popping over to Glasgow as well, and a lot of time spent looking at art. Some of my favourite artists are the so-called Scottish Colourists. They were never a formal art "group" but shared a similar outlook on art in the first third of the 20th Century. Artists like Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell, Samuel John Peploe, John Duncan Fergusson and George Lesie Hunter are still well represented in Edinburgh and Glasgow galleries. There was also a recent showing of some Peploe at the Richard Green gallery in Mayfair recently.

A YouTube video of Michael Palin talking to National Gallery curator Caroline Campbell about his favourite paintings at the gallery mentioned some TV work he did on the colourists. It turns out this episode, split into four parts, is also available on YouTube. What a great resource it is :

Bygone Edinburgh, as well as bygone France.

The programme includes an appalling story about Hunter's final end, and the danger of not following safe studio practice with regards to dangerous substances like turpentine. A very sad tale.


Sun, 10 Sep 2017
In The Studio and Out

The August Bank Holiday in the UK is traditionally wet and horrible - except the weather this time was really nice. The Saturday held out well: hot and sunny. This made the revellers at both the Notting Hill Carnival and the South West Four weekender (round my way) very happy. Most years I feel some sympathy for them: wellies required, even if the girls aren't wearing much else. Not this year though.

On Saturday mornings, I normally pop out and have a coffee, and often a croissant, somewhere in the West End before a museum or gallery visit (or even shopping on occasion). One of my favourite places for this is the Waterstones bookshop on Tottenham Court Road. It's a fairly recent arrival and I got into the habit of going for a lunchtime coffee there before my work moved to Wapping. Good bookshop and a lovely, relaxed cafe/bar downstairs (yes, even beer and wine), with great coffee (a favourite coffee is Union Bobolink).

To top it off, the people who work there are helpful, friendly and know their books and make it a pleasure to pop in and have a chat sometimes. It works to encourage the odd book purchase as well and keep the book queue a good size.

After this, I went to the RA for their Matisse show, Matisse in the Studio. I have to admit that Matisse was never a favourite of mine; I like some of his graphic work, drawings and design patterns but I was often lukewarm about him. Certainly colourful and often playful. This show did not change my mind, although a lot was more the bric-a-brac and pieces he had around him from his studio, things that might inspire. I still enjoyed a stroll around the exhibition, especially his bronze sculptures and some of his drawings. A comment in The Guardian suggests that the Matisse on show at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery (Duke Street) might be better.

On the way home, I came across an odd sight: a queue of women outside the Institute of Directors buildings on Pall Mall. Some a lot older than "girls", but all dressed in some sort of cosplay outfit, a cross between a schoolgirl and Goth. I suspect this is a Japanese Manga style or offshoot but also part of the 21st Century eternal childhood. A bit bemusing to everyone passing by!


Sat, 02 Sep 2017
English Pastoral

A slightly different pastoral theme compared to the American writer Philip Roth. This is Pastoral by Frederick Cayley Robinson, painted in 1923 and hanging in the Tate. It caught my eye: a very striking painting. I took a crop of it for the banner of this blog.


Tue, 29 Aug 2017
Uncultured Places

Inversions
By Iain M. Banks

Score: 3/5

I've been enjoying a few Banks books this year, including a re-read of Excession, also reading The Hydrogen Sonata and Surface Detail. All three books were excellent. Inversions is hardly a Culture novel at all: a very Medieval level world with equivalent superstitions, warfare, justice system (rudimentary, including torture) and extremely basic science and medicine. Almost a standard issue murder, plot, intrigue and war waging novel from the European Middle Ages; except that there is something a bit different about the Doctor, and possibly the Bodyguard as well. Hints that they are not quite what they seem, and things that remain only hints right to the end.

I liked the book but was glad it was not much longer. Interest was held by wanting to know who the Doctor really is, and are your suspicions confirmed? I suspect this one would be a disappointment to many of Banks' Culture fans but one I'll give him a pass on.


Mon, 28 Aug 2017
Daughters

At the National Portrait Gallery to see The Encounter exhibition (drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt), I saw the Sargent exhibition book from 2015 on sale. Looking through it, I paused on the page with his amazing portrait The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit from 1882. A beautiful painting and quite unusual in its composition for the time. The Museum of Fine Arts page is a good description of it and its reception.


The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargent, 1882, Oil on Canvas

It reminded me a little of another painting I had seen recently.

Compare with Rupert Alexander's portrait of The Levinsons on display in the BP Portrait Award show this year. A classic style and a very Sargent feel to it. This is a picture with only four of their five daughters.


The Levinsons, Rupert Alexander, 2016, Oil on Canvas

The Encounter was really good; drawing is the absolutely fundamental base to much good painting and there are some excellent examples here. I really hate the way the NPG add a "booking fee" though. It is over 25% of the cost of my ticket!


Wed, 16 Aug 2017
Bring Out the Dead

Dead Souls
By Nikolai Gogol

Score: 4/5

You can download the ebook here.

Nikolai Gogol wrote this before 1842, and before the emancipation of the serfs by Tzar Alexander II. The souls referred to are those of the serfs, chattel of the landowners; bought, sold, mortgaged.

Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov travels around Russia trying to make money with a clever, but slightly odious, scheme he thought up. Visiting landowners, he cajoles them to part with their "dead souls", that is serfs who have died but still exist on the rolls from the last census: thus still attracting taxes. Hopefully enticing people to part with them for nothing or a minimal fee, he hopes to use these names to enable himself to buy an estate in the future, using them as some form of "collateral" for a mortgage. Yes, slightly off, perhaps not quite legal. The law can be "flexible" in Russia though, and this would, in effect, enable a cheap loan and a foot up the greasy pole.

The novel is great fun and often funny. Chichikov's a form of lovable rogue, a thinks of himself as a "gentleman" but not averse to some underhand dealings. His interactions with the various 19th Century Russians he comes across is often lively, as is the sometimes comedy interlude of life from his servants' perspective. Gogol even lets the horses and dogs have an opinion occasionally and is obviously laughing at some of the absurdity of his creation.

This version was translated by D. J. Hogarth in 1916 (according to Wikipedia) and is now in the public domain. It was a good read and the Standard EBooks version is well produced (a good project). The slight disappointment is that the novel is missing the ending, and also a little fragmentary later on. Generally, we get most of it but a shame to lose out on some of the story. We are actually lucky to have what we have: Gogol never finished it, and in fact tried to destroy it!