A Long Way to Shiloh
By Lionel Davidson
This novel should have been great: an author I know can write absolutely stunning adventure books full of great characters and action, and a backdrop of ancient history, Jewish scriptures, archaeology and treasure hunting. Unfortunately, the book is quite lacklustre. It really must have been an off day for Davidson. The main character, an English academic and archaeologist, is also quite an unlikeable man: a drunkard and a sexist. Not an awful lot happened really, and you were in his company all the time.
John Singer Sargent's Lady Agnew of Lochnaw is a very famous and accomplished painting, now hanging in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. In this YouTube video, American artist John Howard Sanden paints a copy of it over the course of about three hours (split over two videos) :
It is fascinating watching him do this, also a little hypnotic seeing the painting come together. He explains his thought process and what he thought Sargent did at the time he painted the original in 1892. There are many art tutorial channels and videos on YouTube and this is one of the best I've seen. As Sanden says, all the great art masters copied the great works of past masters, including Sargent. I think the final result is extremely good.
The video itself seems to be from an old tape video from the The Portrait Institute in New York. Unfortunately, it might well be an illegal upload because it starts with a warning about "duplication". So the YouTube video might disappear. In some ways this would be a shame: I had never heard of Sanden, or the Institute, but now I know what a good painter and teacher he is.
Edit: Fixed spelling on Sargent's lastname.
by Bram Stoker
Dracula is a book impossible to come to without preconceptions today; it has been read, adapted and discussed so much that it has seeped into the modern imagination almost completely. I disliked almost all the film adaptations over the years, particularly the Hammer versions, and for many years these killed the character and any desire to read the book. However, a few weeks ago I found myself wanting to pick up the book for some reason and I am very glad I did : I thoroughly enjoyed it and it really is a classic.
The initial arc of the story: the eerie journey through the dark forest, wolves and strange coachman, the forbidding castle, creaking and rusting doors, superstitious peasants, all seem so familiar today. One might even groan a little inside recalling a satire like Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein film. So much cliché; but the story soon forges on and becomes exciting. This was quite new and fresh when written all the way back at the end of the 19th Century.
This is at heart a great adventure book, with action and drama, and above all, fright. Surprisingly, given how much the story's been rehashed, it still has a huge power to shock and surprise with real horror. Some of this is due to the characters themselves; characters I actually cared for, particularly the stricken Mina Harker herself. A very good book with some great and powerful moments; and still not for any faint-hearts.
A History of Christianity
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
This is the reason there was a significant hiatus on any reading updates recently. An immense subject and a very big book is to blame!
At over a thousand pages, I picked up MacCulloch's book with some trepidation but having read his history of the Reformation a few years ago, and heard him talk many times on radio, I know how good he is, as a writer and speaker. MacCulloch's history of Christianity covers "three thousand" years because he considers the genesis of the story as starting long before the time of Herod "the Great": with the Jews, and then the Ancient Greek and Roman world. A useful starting point I think because Greek philosophy and Roman mores come to play very important roles in Christian thought and belief. Some might say, too much.
The thought and philosophy of Christians has sometimes been that of extremes, both good and bad. To many people throughout the world, it was literally a matter of eternal life or eternal damnation however, and this mattered a great deal: so much so, that people were willing to kill and be killed. In addition, theology can also hinge on some very subtle distinctions that are hard to grasp now. Be prepared for some theology then, but if you are prepared, this is fascinating and well written. MacCulloch has a dry wit and can sometimes brings a smile (or even laugh) throughout, keeping the narrative alive and interesting.
So far, always an excellent writer and historian.
You can't really argue with Michelangelo (not even Pope's do that successfully), which meant a second visit to the National Gallery for the Michelangelo & Sebastiano show.
Part of the interest here is learning more about some of the daily routine, rough competitiveness and petty jealousies of these top artists. Michelangelo was a notoriously prickly person but warmed to Sebastiano, helping him with his composition and anatomy. This seems to have been driven by his hatred of his younger rival for work, Raphael, who many considered the better overall painter. Michelangelo worked with Sebastiano as a way to win commissions from Raphael, and a form of one-upmanship. No friendly rivalry here.
There are some amazing pieces of work in the show of course, including a cast of Michelangelo's masterpiece Pieta, his Taddeo Tondo and Sebastiano's Raising of Lazarus. One of my favourites is Sebastiano's Judith (below), a smaller painting but with a real character, and beautifully painted.
There's a good overview of the show and the two artists by the curator, Matthias Wivel, on YouTube. The National Gallery has a channel of its own as well, and is well worth a browse. Some great talks in front of various works.
As I stood in front of The Raising of Lazarus, I thought to myself: that's quite an amazing frame! The painting itself is very large, almost 4m high and almost 3m wide, and the frame is impressively large and solid as well :
Looking for some information on the frame,I discovered a very interesting blog all about frames by Lynn Roberts, a picture frame expert. The blog is called The Frame Blog and has a recent post about the Lazarus frame itself, covering the paintings reframing in great detail. It really is a fascinating post, accompanied by a video :
I'll almost certainly return again I think.
The British Museum has a world class collection of Chinese ceramics, the Sir Percival David Collection. Even I, almost completely ignorant of this art and craft, could see how good some of the pieces are. This vase was one small item that took my interest because of its very subtle painting and glazing. This is a Vase with ‘peach-bloom’ glaze and the museum has a page about it here. Qing dynasty, 1662-1722.
This innovative glaze was technically challenging. Potters covered the vase with a layer of clear glaze, followed by a layer of copper-rich pigment, possibly blown on, and added further layers of clear glaze on top. When fired in a reducing atmosphere, this sandwiched colour developed into soft mottled red and pink with flecks of moss-green.
I took a slightly less well composed and lit photograph of it and thought I'd try doing a painting.Below: Peach Blossom, oil, 6x8"
George W Bush, ex-President of the United States never got much good press, and even this New Yorker article on him and his new paintings has a grudging and slightly mean-spirited tone. Leaving politics, economics and war aside though, the author really likes the paintings :
The quality of the art is astonishingly high for someone who—because he “felt antsy” in retirement, he writes, after “I had been an art-agnostic all my life”—took up painting from a standing stop, four years ago, at the age of sixty-six.
I think they're pretty good as well. Paintings of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan :