Thu, 23 Jul 2015
A Medieval Festival

As luck would have it, I was in Swaffham, Norfolk, for the weekend of the 18 and 19th July.

This was the weekend the town celebrated the 800th anniversary of the first mention of its market, in the year 1215.

The town held a Medieval Festival, with lots of song, dance, jousting, archery falconry and an old-style market.

We also had King John, Archbishop Langton and the Barons getting together at the bandstand (after the little girls did their song and dance routine to 50's rock and roll).

Lots of people out and about, the Saturday market busier than usual and an indoor arts and crafts fair, plus nice sunny weather.

A town crier kept everyone informed of the various things going on, when he wasn't cajoling a dance with one of the nuns present.

A very pleasant day out although I regret not buying a bottle or two of the "800" year old ale for sale.

Tue, 21 Jul 2015

By Frank Herbert

I first read Frank Herbert's novel Dune over thirty years ago, but having just re-read it, I now realise how much of it completely passed me by. I thoroughly enjoyed it as a fantastic adventure story but the references to the Islamic conquests, jihad, religious prophecy, selective breeding programs and the nature of the spice drug were background details I didn't fully absorb or understand.

The other thing I see now is how beautifully written the book is: it deserves its high reputation and many awards. The only minor quibble I would take is that I feel it ends a bit too quickly; some characters deserve a little bit more time perhaps.

On the right: The cover of the paperback I read back in the day. A wonderful Bruce Pennington painting.

I went to see an exhibition of some Pennington paintings at London's Atlantis Books a while ago. A lovely little show that really made me appreciate Pennington's unique style.

Left: The cover of the new hardback Dune novel I finished recently. A classic deserves a good hardback edition!

The heart of the novel is the coming of age story of the young Duke Paul Atreides, his awakening to his "terrible purpose" and wonderfully drawn relationship to his mother Jessica. The human and social core remains the most important aspect and is never dominated by hardware or science. This is definitely not a "hard" science-fiction book and it owes as much to Walter Scott as Robert Heinlein.

Beautifully written, fast paced and very moving in parts. If you have not read Dune, you should.

For a long time I had heard of Alejandro Jodorowsky's aborted feature film of the book from the 1970's, and been disappointed it had not been made. However, having seen the recent documentary about it, Jodorowsky's Dune, I'm perhaps glad it wasn't. Jodorowsky's a very talented author and artist but he was far too keen on his own ideas and bent on changing the actual story. It would not have been the same at all even if it had looked and sounded amazing.

As for David Lynch's film, I saw it on release and did not really like it: too weird and "gothic". Looking at it now however, I see a lot more to like, even though it is obviously very flawed. There is a lot of deeper substance to Dune and the book deserves much more than only an action and adventure treatment. Lynch tried this and failed (not his fault alone) but a worthy try. What would Peter Jackson make of it?

Tue, 14 Jul 2015
What Would Crito Do?

From the letters page of The Economist :

Some argue that the Greeks have a problem with their economic culture. But
perhaps there is hope of change, for they were not always such bad debtors. The
last words uttered by Socrates were: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; pay it
and do not forget.”

New York

Sun, 12 Jul 2015
Summer 2015

Lovely summer Saturday morning for a visit to the 2015 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. A busy start to the show as well as the crowd waited for it to open in the sun-splashed courtyard. The courtyard hosts the first bit of the exhibition: a massive steel sculpture (looking distinctly rusty) called 'The Dappled Light of the Sun' by Conrad Shawcross (below). Appropriately named today.

Inside and up the stairs (brightly striped) to the main exhibition that covers 16 rooms, lots of space for lots of painting, print, sculpture and the odd "installation" piece. Odd is sometimes the right word.

Above: sheep and a goat, Dido Crosby (link)

One thing I always notice at the RA is how clean and pristine everything is: the rooms, the ceilings, the paint on the walls, the floors. They do a very good job keeping the place spotless.

Right : A detail of the highly ornate ceiling in one of the rooms. Lots of this sort of decorative style inside, but perhaps a modern "Grayson Perry RA" style paint job?

Below: Erebus (Man on Fire Version II), by Tim Shaw (link)

There is something slightly unsettling about this huge, bug-like mutation of a sculpture in the middle of the room. There is a man's body inside the black mass of exploding substrate, the head bent down and under, arms outstretched.

Below : People admiring a few of the late William Bowyer's works (link).

Right :
CAPTCHA NO.11 (DORYPHOROS), by Matthew Darbyshire

There are a huge number of things to see here, and a lot of pieces that I marked myself as things I particularly liked. I recalled liking Olwyn Bowey's work from last time but there are many others.

Looking back at the web site now, I appear to have missed two rooms! I try and be methodical but didn't manage it very well this time! Anyway, browse all the art at the Summer Exhibition Explorer web site.

Sun, 05 Jul 2015
BP Portrait Award 2015

Lovely weather recently, and perfect for trips around town. Such as a second visit to the National Portrait Gallery and the 2015 BP Portrait Award.

In my experience, always a great show with some beautiful and inspiring works of portraiture. One or two are so personal and painful, it was hard to look at them. An example is the painting Juanito by José Luis Corella, shown below (links to the NPG page) :

The picture is of the artist's uncle and is very large and photo-realistic. It is quite hard to look at without a well of emotion surfacing; a very affecting picture.

Two other paintings stood out for me.

The first is an amazing diptych portrait by Leslie Watts, Charlotte and Emily. Beautifully painted in egg tempera :

Charlotte and Emily by Leslie Watts. Egg tempera on clayboard. 500mm x 400mm each.

Leslie Watts has her own blog.

The second painting is quite understated, and the winner of the second prize. This is Eliza, by Michael Gaskell. Painted in acrylic, the jumper and denim shirt are amazingly life-like. It's also very hard to paint such subtle skin tones in acrylic I think.

Eliza by Michael Gaskell. Acrylic on board. 370mm x 270mm.

His influences here are described as fifteenth century portrait painter Hans Memling. He has his own web site with more examples of his work. Some really amazing stuff.

Have a look at some other pictures from the show here.

Mon, 29 Jun 2015
Like Grandfather like Grandson

Athelstan, First King of England
By Sarah Foot

A fairly academic book in places (it is part of the Yale English Monarchs series) but mostly very readable to the lay person.

The main problem with Athelstan is that his life has a very limited documentary record, especially compared to his grandfather, Alfred the Great. This is a shame since he is a very important early king, the first King of England really, and even someone who could claim overlordship over the whole of Britain to some degree.

Sarah Foot is Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Christ Church, Oxford, and has appeared a few times on the BBC's In Our Time radio programs. On radio, she has taken part on programs that went through the Life of Bede, Alfred's Battle of Edington and, of course, Athelstan. It was on this program that I first heard of the battle of Brunanburh, a decisive victory of the Anglo-Saxon army over the combined forces of the Scots, Welsh and Dublin Norse.

The site of the battle was probably the North West of England around the Wirral, but no one knows for sure and the battle and its significance has been all but forgotten. In some ways, rather like Athelstan himself. Maybe this was due to his background (some question over his mother's lineage) or possible accessory in his brother's death shortly after his (probably) contested coronation. Whatever the reason, Alfred has well and truly eclipsed his grandson.

If you want proper detail about what we know about Athelstan however, this is the book for you. For a more accessible guide. Michael Wood made a very good documentary for the BBC called In Search of Athelstan and you can watch it all on YouTube.

Sun, 14 Jun 2015
SWA 2015

I was at the Society of Women Artists last week at the Mall Galleries. As usual a great show of art, and some favourites are below (but really, too many to show). A couple of photographs below are a detail only, and one or two have an indecipherable description (sorry).

Marigold Plunkett, Lost in Thought. Oil.

Annie Ward, A Democracy of Pots: The Gathering. Acrylic.

Marjorie Collins, ... (detail). Watercolour.

Orsi Cowel-Lehoczky. Parakeets, Number 1. Oil.

Jan Hunter. ... Acrylic.

Patricia Clements, Three Apples (detail). Pastel.

Angela Brittain, Lark Song. Acrylic.

Wed, 10 Jun 2015

Not sure who this is now (perhaps Hadrian) because I didn't get the description, but it's from photograph I took in the British Museum :

20x25cm, acrylic on Daler Board

I thought it would be a chance to have a go at the "classic" art practice of drawing (or painting) a sculpture, looking for the light and shade. I'm quite happy with it, although the painting is much better in real life.

Sun, 07 Jun 2015
The Mighty Dead

The Mighty Dead, Why Homer Matters
By Adam Nicolson

One of those uncommon books where you have to savour the writing in the reading of it. A beautifully written, poetic book that digs deeply into the origins of one of the foundations of Western Civilisation: Homer's two epics The Illiad and The Odyssey.

This is also a very personal tale at times. Nicolson does not flinch at his own past, using it to reflect on the way Homer's world works, however brutally.

And as he points out, the Greek Heroes are extremely brutal. Blood drenched, selfish, pumped up and boorish: a gang of thugs who revel in shouting and killing. There is a well placed analogy with the sort of life a modern inner-city gang member lives, where violence can be a way of life, and "respect" is a dangerous thing to slight or ignore. It's almost a meeting of two worlds: the civilised and settled city (Troy) and the warrior society from the Eurasian steppe (the Greeks). Nicolson posits that, in effect, there may be some historical truth to this. From such beginnings, what timeless beauty can be spun though.

On the beginning of the age of bronze in the near east :

At the same moment, but further north, the new metal had an equally powerful effect on human history. A cluster of economic, social,military and psychological changes came about in a wide swathe of country which stretched from the steppelands around the Caspian Sea through the Balkans and on into Northern Europe. These changes created the civilisation of which Achilles is the symbol: not a city world but a warrior elite, ferociously male in its focus, with male gods and a cultivation of violence, with no great attention paid to dwellings or public buildings,but a fascination with weaponry, speed and violence.

Left: The so-called "Mask of Agamemnon", a gold sheet funeral mask that covered the face of a buried man in a Mycenean shaft grave (Circa 1500 BC). Discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876.

There's plenty of archaeology here and not just the muddy sort: we also have to dig into the literary past and even more, the linguistic levels of history to see what odd, pre-Greek words still exist as a memory of a more ancient existence. How long can such a memory exist and be passed down the generations in song and poem, orally? Perhaps a surprisingly long time. "Homer" is supposed to have put these masterworks down in written form in the 7th or 8th Century BC, the actions in the books having taken place around 1200 BC (500 years earlier).

The Illiad is suffused with blood and a pleasure in its cold-bloodedness. Achilles is the preeminent figure in the violence he unfurls, but the cunning Odysseus and the other Greeks are not far behind in the love of fighting and killing. The conjecture Nicolson expounds is that perhaps the actual events are much older, and he makes the case that we might push the siege of Troy back another 1000 years, or at least to the earlier 2nd Millenium BC. Whatever the truth of this (and I understand it is controversial and not necessarily backed up), it is an intriguing idea.

Penelope welcomes Odysseus home to Ithaca. This looks very civiised, but in the book, he wades in blood having slaughtered not only her suitors but various serving girls as well.
It is actually quite shocking to a modern sensibility.

The whole book is poetic and thought-provoking and perhaps as importantly, makes one want to re-read Homer. Not only that, but with a greater awareness of the translation. Excellent work.

I also decided to rewatch Michael Wood's BBC documentary series from 1985, In Search of the Trojan War. I've blogged about this before: the series is very good. I'd love Wood to do at least one more program to update us on the latest of Troy, and Greek prehistory.

Sun, 31 May 2015
Inner City Southwark

As a follow-up to the post about the Ravilious exhiibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, I had a wander in the neighbourhood before it opened.

It's hard to believe that these leafy, quiet, tidy and well-to-do streets are actually in the London Borough of Southwark.

As you can see on the right, Southwark actually covers a tremendously long strip of land, all the way from the river (London Bridge, Borough Market, Tate Modern) down to suburban Dulwich (Dulwich College, Dulwich Picture Gallery). At the top, it is directly across from the City of London (4 on the map). Lambeth, where I live, is to it's left but at the river end, it gets quite confused as to which borough you're in.

White picket fences ... can this be Southwark?

Or this ...

There's actually a tollbooth on this road, which appears to be private. Lots of private roads in the area in fact, and well tended lawns and sports fields.

Brixton's a few minutes cycle away, but that's crossing into the borough of Lambeth.

Southwark's actually one of the oldest parts of London, but that's the river end.

A pretty nice place and I'm ashamed to say that I haven't even had a look in the park yet. So, how much do these places cost? Let's start at a million ...