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One of the major things that happened in my life this year is that I left London after 13 years in the Big Smoke. Yes, THIRTEEN YEARS, insane I know. I mean, how did that even happen. Anyway, I had enough and left. But not far. I now live in Oxford! Well, ever so slightly outside of Oxford – it’s practically the countryside. Almost. If you just ignore the ring road thundering by half a mile off.

Now, in doing a bit of research, as you do, about da new hood I found something that made me a teeny bit excited. My road appears to have been built by John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde. Yes, I kid you not.

Ruskin, an Oxford man, used to ride around Oxford and its surroundings, which, though most of Oxford is oooold af, didn’t look quite as it does today. There was no ring road for example. So there Ruskin was, trotting around where I now live to watch the peasant people do their thing and thought hey, there’s no road between these two villages and there should be so the poor peasant people don’t have to walk so far to get places (no cars either you see).

John Ruskin 1863.jpg

Ruskin – so photogenic!

So he rounded up a bunch of his university students, including some people who – surprise surprise! – would become important enough to have their own wikipedia entries. And Oscar Wilde was one of them! Here is his story of what went down that summer in 1874:

One summer afternoon in Oxford – ‘that sweet city with her dreaming spires,’ lovely as Venice in its splendour, noble in its learning as Rome, down the long High Street that winds from tower to tower, past silent cloisters and stately gateway, till it reaches that long, grey seven-arch bridge which Saint Mary used to guard  (used to, i say, because they are now pulling it down to build a tramway and a light cast-iron bridge in its place, desecrating the loveliest city in England) – well,  we were coming down the street—a troop of young men, some of them like myself only nineteen, going to river or tennis-court or cricket-field—when Ruskin going up to lecture in cap and gown met us. He seemed troubled and prayed us to go back with him to his lecture, which a few of us did, and there he spoke to us not on art this time but on life, saying that it seemed to him to be wrong that all the best physique and strength of the young men in England should be spent aimlessly on cricket ground or river, without any result at all except that if one rowed well one got a pewter-pot, and if one made a good score, a cane-handled bat. He thought, he said, that we should be working at something that would do good to other people, at something by which we might show that in all labour there was something noble. Well, we were a good deal moved, and said we would do anything he wished. So he went out round Oxford and found two villages, Upper and Lower Hinksey, and between them there lay a great swamp, so that the villagers could not pass from one to the other without many miles of a round. And when we came back in winter he asked us to help him to make a road across this morass for these village people to use. So out we went, day after day, and learned how to lay levels and to break stones, and to wheel barrows along a plank—a very difficult thing to do. And Ruskin worked with us in the mist and rain and mud of an Oxford winter, and our friends and our enemies came out and mocked us from the bank. We did not mind it much then, and we did not mind it afterwards at all, but worked away for two months at our road. And what became of the road? Well, like a bad lecture it ended abruptly—in the middle of the swamp. Ruskin going away to Venice, when we came back for the next term there was no leader, and the ‘diggers’, as they called us, fell asunder.

‘Art and the Handicraftsman’ in Essays and Lectures by Oscar Wilde

And that was that. There is still no easy way to get from North Hinksey to South Hinksey and the fields and paths around here still flood but at least there is a road that stretches as far as to my house, for which I am grateful.

 

 

That is by far the most interesting thing I have been able to find on the neighbourhood but there are some other lose art anecdotes. For example Millais and Collins lived in Botley for a while, and Turner (not to be confused with Turner of Oxford apparently) painted this from the village – such rural idyll!

 

oxford from N Hinksey Turner.jpg

Oxford from North Hinksey by Turner 

 

 

 

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Inside by Maurizio Strippoli

For someone who has trawled through the better part of the In Our Time archive, it was a real treat to see Melvyn Bragg IRL at the National aka my second home. Melvyn (yes, I think we’re on first name basis here) is how I imagine the Victorian polymath from the public lecture halls would be. So jam packed with knowledge that it can barely be contained, it spills over in anecdotes, in jokes, in semi-unrelated facts, accompanied by gesticulation so wild, hand written notes flies all over the place.

They are celebrating the anniversary of the King James’s Bible which is the subject of Melvyn’s new book The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible (I went to some of the bible readings as well but I don’t know if it works, you know. I like costume and bit of spectacle when I’m at the theatre, and I don’t fare well with monologues.). A lot of this talk – on the social and cultural importance of the KJ Bible – resonated with the talks on the gospel and social justice that’s been running at St Martin in the Field, where Neil MacGregor did an amazingly good speech on Compassion in Art – or lack thereof.

Now, I can’t show you any Christian art of radical compassion because apparently there isn’t any but I will show you this. Engraved in ONE single circular line, starting at the tip of the nose and moving outwards (click on it, it’s awesome).

Sometimes, like Flaubert, I believe in nothing but art.

Where I’m from a haircut is about a tenner – and you can be sure to get all the town gossip from the past year thrown into the deal as well as well. Here in central London it’s a different story. It’s perfectly alright to charge 100 quid for a simple, straight-forward cut justified by some “senior stylist” title bollocks. I know I have myself to blame for being such a push-over but I find it virtually impossible to walk into a hair salon without being talked into having the most ridiculously priced stuff put into my hair. Your hair needs it. Does it now, really? Because I can never say no, nor have the guts to complain, I have had some pretty wacky – and expensive – hair cuts in the past. That’s why I’ve stayed clear from hairdressers for a good year now. Then yesterday I gathered some strength and went for it. Five hours, four hair colour removal runs, one exceptionally gentle (i.e. exceptionally expensive) hair-colour, three absolutely essential treatments, a cut and a blow-dry later, I could walk out as the red-head (although not quite the shade) I had come for. I didn’t even dare listen to the total cost, I just paid and ran out before they managed to convince me to get the super amazing “Brazilian blow-dry” for the fantastic price of £200. Such bollocks.

 

I listen to Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren about ten times every day. I have no idea why; I’m not a Buckley fan otherwise. Sometimes This Mortal Coil’s cover will do as well, but never, ever Robert Plant or Brian Ferry (although Ferry’s live performance on Jools Holland was quite acceptable). And for the rest of my waking hours, it plays inside my head, over and over again.

It haunts me to say the least (thought I’d better get it out of my system).

Which, of course, leads me to present these various Ondines / Victorian pin-ups…

Maillol BanyulsSurMer.

The steadfastness of generations of nobility
shows in the curving lines that form the eyebrows.
And the blue eyes still show traces of childhood fears
and of humility here and there, not of a servant’s,
yet of one who serves obediantly, and of a woman.
The mouth formed as a mouth, large and accurate,
not given to long phrases, but to express
persuasively what is right. The forehead without guile
and favoring the shadows of quiet downward gazing.

This, as a coherent whole, only casually observed;
never as yet tried in suffering or succeeding,
held together for an enduring fulfillment,
yet so as if for times to come, out of these scattered things,
something serious and lasting were being planned.

(Self-portrait by Rilke; Arthur Hughes; Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Jean Delville; Steichen; Munch; William Hazlitt; Samuel Palmer; Charles Hazlewood Shannon)

Karen Knorr, I love, I love, I love! This sort of reminds me of the pictures you see from places like Chernobyl, where nature has been so quick to reclaim human territory. That whole world-without-humans hypothesis…civilization is fragile, don’t we know it. What surprises me is how perfectly natural it looks with a  badger in your 19th century french boudoir, or a couple of bucks fighting it out underneath the chandeliers. Work like this could easily take on a surrealist tone where dislocation is the main principle. But this looks perfectly natural, don’t you think? Or maybe it is only wishful thinking from my side. I mean, personally I would love to live like this. At least a little peacock…please!

A mixed bag from different series:

Things we have discussed most frequently this week at the office (except for work itself of course): Champagne, student fees, diets, self-development strategies, Tamara de Lempicka, food, Flashdance and Christmas (food and diets being our constant topics). Tamara de Lempicka is an interesting subject because we use her as a style inspiration for brand development. I adore her, whilst others…not so much. I can’t explain why, I clearly have no consistency in taste.

… my goal was: Do not copy. Create a new style, … colors light and bright, return to elegance in my models – Tamara de Lempicka

I’m not a big fan of the Penguin’s editions of Ayn Rand with Lempicka covers as it is so blatantly obvious to link them together, although it works well enough I guess because of similarity in artistic vision between the two. I readily admit I have a certain weakness for Rand’s aesthetic theory (even though it may fall on its own accord) and Roark’s praise of Stephen Mallory in The Fountainhead could perhaps be used to explain my love for Lempicka: I think you are the best sculptor we have. I think it because your figures are not what men are, but what men could be – and should be. Because you’ve gone beyond the probable and made us see what is possible, but possible only trough you. Because your figures are more devoid of contempt for humanity than any work I’ve ever seen. Because you have a magnificent respect for the human being. Because your figures are the heroic in man.

Inspired by Lempicka…



Cutler and Gross

Copies…

AR

God strengthen me to bear myself;
That heaviest weight of all to bear,
Inalienable weight of care.

All others are outside myself;
I lock my door and bar them out
The turmoil, tedium, gad-about.

I lock my door upon myself,
And bar them out; but who shall wall
Self from myself, most loathed of all?

If I could once lay down myself,
And start self-purged upon the race
That all must run ! Death runs apace.

If I could set aside myself,
And start with lightened heart upon
The road by all men overgone!

God harden me against myself,
This coward with pathetic voice
Who craves for ease and rest and joys

Myself, arch-traitor to myself ;
My hollowest friend, my deadliest foe,
My clog whatever road I go.

Yet One there is can curb myself,
Can roll the strangling load from me
Break off the yoke and set me free.

 

“Who Shall Deliver Me?” by Christina Rossetti (Mellery The Stairway; Khnopff I Lock the Door Upon Myself; Khnopff Who Shall Deliver Me; Rossetti Beata Beatrix)

It is the most exciting thing when artworks from private collections briefly  enters the public domain of the auction rooms. If I had unlimited funds it is very likely I would spend a small fortune on the 5 o’clock tea antiquity type of art that is so (although little favoured by art critics) popular among collectors. My dream, someone else’s reality: Alma-Tadema’s “The Finding of Moses” sold for a whopping $35,922,500 the other day at Sotheby’s.

And at the same auction, “Portrait of Giovinetta Errazuriz”, Boldini’s lovely little Lolita, went for $6,578,500. If I could choose any artist, living or dead, to paint my portrait it would be Boldini. Or possibly a post-1900 Singer Sargent. Fluid and dazzling. I would love to paint myself actually. Were I an artist I would do a great deal of bleak self-portraits, I imagine.

I had a meeting on High Street Ken this morning and spent the rest of the day wandering around that which is, without a doubt, the best part of town. At the V&A I found a Rossetti I haven’t seen before, watched adorable little school children sketch William Morris patterns (I know this sounds like suspicious behavior… I can assure you children hold no special place in my heart – to put it mildly – but I love watching kids and art.) and discovered that the tapestry room is a most calm and meditative place. I then went to check out these mirror installations by Anish Kapoor in Kensington Gardens.

I found it largely unimpressive, almost a bit ugly and not all as good as his other work. But then, to be fair, the weather was not doing anyone any favours today.  They are due to stay until next year so I will try to swing by on a bright, sunshiny day and search for that wonder, felt last year at his RA show. I also went to see Klara Lidén’s stuff at the Serpentine Gallery. I don’t get it. At all. But hey ho, so it goes. Jean Nouvel’s pavilion is amazing though, I wish I had made the effort to go to see it in the summer, in all its glory.

Red, red, red. Anish Kapoor feels strongly about red. Matisse did too, and Kokoschka. Gauguin adored red. Not to talk about Rothko. Red protects itself. No colour is as territorial. It stakes a claim, is on the alert against the spectrum said Derek Jarman but he felt very strongly about that whole spectrum I believe.  I have lost his little book on colours I realize now and  I miss it. Well, cheerio!

Here is one more picture I found from Highgate Cemetery. It is the family grave of the Rossetti’s, and we were taken there because someone wanted to see the grave of “the lady with the hair”.  Apparently, as legend has it, Lizzie Siddal’s hair continued to grow after her death and when Rossetti went to dig up his poems, her coffin was full of long, golden red hair. PR-trick?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Buried all of his libretti,
Thought the matter over – then
Went and dug them up again.

-Dorothy Parker

Christina is buried in the same plot and the title of the post is from her poem “A Portrait”.  And the title of the last post is taken from a Swinburne poem whom, incidentally, Rossetti was out dining with at the time when Lizzie fatally overdosed on laudanum. They life they led…

Last night, after attempting to visit Francis Alÿs at Tate Modern (we only got as far as to Agnes Martin when the insight into our human imperfections and inadequacies quenched our determination and made the pub a more tempting option), we were sat on Bankside, rosé in hand and with a view overlooking St Paul’s in front of us (which prompted a most depraved conversation of which I shall spare you the details). It is the first time in many years I have seen St Paul’s without any scaffolding and it is such a pretty sight. This is the year it has all been leading up to: the 300th anniversary of its completion. It is rather comforting to look upon something which looks exactly the same now as then, with the rest of London so much changed.  My infatuation with lavish Baroque has (temporarily) cooled down, and I never thought I would say this, but I am actually quite happy some restraints were put on Sir Wren’s building plans. Pieter Jansz Saenredam might have something to do with it.

Such depth and breadth and height! I love these Dutch Gothic church interiors with their ashen walls and supple, curved shapes creating grandeur  in all their austerity. Far from the spectacle of Catholic adoration, in Saenredam’s paintings, light flows through empty Protestant churches, bare and whitewashed in the Calvinist Reformation. They speak the visual language of architecture, concerned with surfaces and structure rather than people and symbols. Roland Barthes writes that never has nothingness been so confident. Saenredam’s sugary, stubborn surfaces calmly rejects the Italian overpopulation of statues, as well as the horror vacui professed by other Dutch painters. Saenredam is in effect a painter of the absurd; he has achieved a private state of the subject, more insidious than the dislocations of our contemporaries. To paint so lovingly these meaningless surfaces, and to paint nothing else – that is already a “modern” esthetic of silence. Indulging in these white spaces, with acute precision, Saenredam escapes what Barthes and Robbe-Grillet 300 years later would call ‘the tyranny of signification’: the dawn of modernism in the 17th century.

Frederick Cayley Robinson (1962-1927) has been dug up from the dark abyss of forgotten artists in the National Gallery’s exhibition Acts of Mercy where the main attraction is four large-scale panels, originally commissioned by the Middlesex Hospital and now owned by the Wellcome Trust, of which BBC has made a neat little Audio Slideshow. But what really caught my attention was this:

“Pastoral” usually resides at Tate  (although I have never seen it there on display) and trust me; it is a thousand times more beautiful and radiant in real life. That moonshine, shining like mercury, shoots through the air like a bright flash of light. It is wonderfully subtle and loud at the same time and strikes a chord with me in very much the same way as this other National Gallery painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela.

What I like here is that double focus of realism and symbolism…that slightly intangible shift into figurative modernism, still anchored in heroic symbolism (Gallen-Kallela is best known for his illustrations of the Finish national epic Kalevala). But aesthetic merits aside, I think it’s mostly got to do with the water. I’m not a sea person you see.  I’ll happily visit the seaside every once in a while and like maritime art very much indeed (especially stormy seascapes). But I am, devotedly and entirely, a lake person. Yes, the sea, the sea brings into our minds ‘the turbid ebb and flow of human misery’ etc. etc. But the lake is serene, mysterious and poetic. It records the changing of seasons in the mirror of its surface, soft like velvet in the summer and hard like the earth in the winter. It hoards memories and silence, regrets and desires: a keeper of secrets.

The artist at work in his studio. Self-portraits by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Read the article “Fin de partie: A Group of Self-Portraits by Jean-Léon Gérôme” by Susan Waller in Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide.

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