Fri, 30 Dec 2016
Cat on Cup

This is a small painting done as a Christmas present, set in a fancy frame picked up in a charity shop for £1. The painting is oil, on arches paper and depicts a Jane Foster mug, something I picked up in John Lewis. The mug's small but a perfect size for an expresso, or a child.


Sun, 25 Dec 2016
How to make a wood engraving

This is a short (6 minute) video from the Royal Academy with artist Anne Desmet showing us how she makes an engraving in wood. Using a sketch she made of a town in Italy as a starting point, it is fascinating to see the work involved and the final result is lovely.

Her web site is here, with a gallery of work, some of it award winning.


Fri, 23 Dec 2016
Taking Care of Relations

Not a book review (yet), but I have been reading Peter Heather's history of the early medieval period, post-Western Roman Empire, The Restoration of Rome, and finding it very good. Heather's got a way with words sometimes, putting events of the day into familiar terms, sometimes quite amusingly. It might jar sometimes, but he gets away with it because his book is good history with his own research behind some of it.

Right: A medal minted by Theoderic, King of the Ostrogoths and ruler of Italy, early 6th Century.

The period after the political demise of the Western Roman Empire was full of drama, including a lot of fighting and killing (not much change then, perhaps). This included intra-family decimations. Take Clovis, King of the Franks circa 480 AD. To achieve and cement his power, he killed a vast number of people, including perhaps seven rivals, some of them relatives.

From Heather's book, describing Bishop Gregory Of Tours history of the times :

Gregory closes the chapters with a speech Clovis is supposed to have made at a Frankish assembly

How sad a thing it is that I live among strangers like some solitary pilgrim, and that I have none of my own relations left to help me when disaster threatens!

Gregory's comment on this is typical of his own dark sense of humour

He said this not because he grieved for their deaths, but because in his cunning way he hoped to find some relative still in the land of the living he could kill.

So far, a fascinating book. Now we move from the Ostrogoth Theoderic to the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian.


Thu, 22 Dec 2016
Adorable?

The Victoria and Albert Museum is always worth a visit, and at Christmas they usually have some good decorations up as well. It's a very large stone building, with lots of space, so it can be a bit chilly in winter however.

On the left is a detail of a wooden carving of Jesus, Mary and Adoring Kings of about 1510 from an Austrian church. Unfortunately, as well as missing a hand, the infant Jesus has a decidedly demonic appearance now. The wooden work has not aged well (one assumes the child was more angelic originally, one would hope).

The nearby Jesus, Mary and Family (below), also Austrian from about the year 1510, has a much more presentable Jesus :

If you like the Christmas story, a visit an art gallery or museum is a good way to see it pictured. The National Gallery in London has an exhibition of two massive nativity paintings by an almost unknown (outside Spain) Spanish artist called Fray Juan Bautista MaĆ­no. His paintings here are very beautiful and extremely impressive, not least the size. The paintings are on loan from the Prado in Madrid until the end of January: the link is to the museum's page on the Adoration of the Shepherds and lets you zoom in. In life, the paintings are over 3 metres high!


Wed, 14 Dec 2016
The Leopard

The Leopard
By Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Score: 5/5

This edition of The Leopard is a beautifully produced hardback Everyman's Library edition. It is also one of the best novels I have read, and something I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

The book is set in Sicily during the 1860's, Garibaldi has landed on Sicily and the reunification (Risorgimento) of Italy has been set in motion. Centred on the aristocratic family of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, as he struggles to come to terms with the new order and the changes that arrive in a traditional and rural Sicily, the book is funny, sweet, sad and extremely well written (and therefore translated). This is a novel I realised I wanted to savour from the start and was sad to finish.

The introduction by David Gilmour is also well worth reading, as he gives a background to the author. The Prince of Salina, family and household is based on author Tomasi di Lampedusa's similar trajectory :

.. from wealth to penury, from influence to impotence, from an abundance of male descendants to sheer physical extinction. The last Prince of Lampedusa died, childless and impoverished, in Rome in 1957. He left few possessions except the manuscript of a novel which had recently been rejected by two leading Italian publishers".

Similar rejections of what turn out to be classic works is familiar. One wonders how many wonderful works might never find an audience, but must be very grateful that this one did. A wonderful book: I cannot recommend it highly enough.


Sat, 10 Dec 2016
Olwyn Bowey at the RA

Olwyn Bowey is an artist I hadn't heard of or seen until I saw a few of her paintings in the last couple of summer shows at the Royal Academy. I liked them so keep my eyes open. She has a small exhibition on at the RA just now: not in a gallery but in the Keepers House. Actually in the Belle Shenkman Room, part of the café.

Below: Tortoise with Alliums, 2016, Oil on board. 69 x 66cm

Below: Cape Primroses, 2015, Oil on board. 72.5 x 77cm

Normally, you need to be an RA "friend" (member) to use the restaurant or café (some of it is swanky), but entrance to see the pictures is free. So it was good to see the inside of the RA member facilities. It was also very quiet first thing, so a perfect time to visit. See it here.


Fri, 09 Dec 2016
Oil Painters

On Saturday I went to the Royal Institute of Oil Painters 2016 exhibition. Amazing show, lots of different artists and lots of great works.

Getting there on a cold morning, and there must have been about thirty artists arriving to take part in the annual show competition: do a plein-air oil painting within half a mile of the gallery and win a prize. Although cold, it was a good day for it, with the sun out and a crisp, winter light.

It is impossible to pick a favourite, or even a reasonable number! One I liked was the large and imposing : On Time by Richard Combes ROI, Oil, 125 x 150 cm. Stunning realism and beautifully executed.

And for something quite different : Cats and Friends by Susan Bower RBA ROI, Oil, 47 x 53cm. She does these quirky paintings, usually people, often with animals, funny. They seem to sell well. I'm not a big fan but I quite like them and they usually bring a smile to your face.

For a good selection of the work, see the Mall Galleries site.


Sun, 04 Dec 2016
Quantum Ladders

Schild's Ladder
By Greg Egan

Score : 3 / 5

Egan's science-fiction is perhaps the wildest and most speculative stuff I've read, but the wildness comes at a cost: sometimes a lot of exposition of the maths and physics behind it all. Schild's Ladder is a case in point: I have to admit to skimming some of this after a while but still enjoyed the book. This novel perhaps pushed the "hard" science a bit more than usual, even for Egan.

In the far future, a researcher creates a state of vacuum more stable than our own by accident and it starts expanding inside our universe, destroying "normal" matter as it does (at half the speed of light). The novel has two opposing camps of humanity: those that want to reverse and destroy this novo-vacuum, and those that want to stop its expansion and study it.

Right now, both factions are on an outpost (seemingly) pacing the expansion, sitting in front of it and studying it. Fighting, a war of words at the moment. These are not your average humans though: essentially immortal because they exist as information that can inhabit flesh-and-blood artificial human bodies, inhabit artificial exo-skeletons or decide to stay incorporeal. Gender is fluid, AI ubiquitous and everyone seems to know a lot of math! The physics of the new matter inside the expanding new vacuum is described, as well as a mind-bending voyage inside to investigate its secrets. "Normal" space is fairly mind-bending as it is anyway but Egan can stretch things further when we get down to planck scale physics :

The Planck scale is the universal limit, beyond which the currently known laws of physics break. In order to comprehend anything beyond it, we need new, unbreakable physics.

I didn't really care about the characters, and didn't really understand a lot of it, but it is quite a dive into the far future and it is very thought provoking. I hope humanity makes it to the far future.