The Finest Hour

This weekend I went to the National Gallery’s exhibition on Monet and Architecture.  It’s a rather problematic subject. Compared to someone like Ruskin who recorded architecture in considerable detail, it remains open as to what extent Monet was concerned with the subject matter of his painting. The subjects in question range considerably from medieval cathedrals to train stations; the implication often seems to be that Monet painted what was available to him; if much of his work consists of painting nature, it is because he lived in the countryside for financial reasons in his later life. Of his earlier works, a panorama of Paris looking at from the Louvre towards the Pantheon stands out as being reminiscent of Canaletto’s cityscapes. A lot of works from this period of his career do demonstrate some absorption with architecture, whether French churches or Dutch windmills. But in the later sections, there’s a sense that it is largely immaterial whether it is Giorgio Maggiore or the Palace of Westminster, as when we see repeated series of the same subject with only the weather and light conditions varying. The series of Rouen cathedral shows the same facade, lacking detail but with all of its essential aspects recognisable but lit entirely differently depending on the time of day. I also visit the Guildhall’s exhibition of De Morgan ceramics (I hadn’t know about the mathematical career pursued by much of his family or his later career as a writer) and the Maqdala treasures exhibition at the V&A. I then go to the Rodin exhibition at the British Museum, placing Rodin’s works alongside the Elgin Marbles and other classical sculptures that Rodin has sketched or collected, in the absence of having visited Greece himself. You do suspect that Rodin was at least in part interested in them, due to their shattered and damaged status. I also realise there’s a free exhibition at the British Museum on the work of Nikos Ghika and John Craxton; I particularly like Craxton’s portraits and Ghika’s landscapes, most of which seem like Cubist labyrinths.

Later that day, I go to the Barbican for a Battle of Britain concert, featuring music from Coates, Coward, Lynn and Glenn Miller. In retrospect, I’m not entitled sure how I ended up agreeing to this (by not paying sufficient attention to the programme, I presume) but if the concert is rather enjoyable it’s still rather unnerving to be one of the few people present under seventy. A mention of Gracie Fields during Peter Bowles’ narration gets a loud cheer, which is odd as even given the average age of the audience it seems unlikely many there can actually remember her anymore than I can. It all seems a lot like switching on British Weekend television, where British history apparently stopped some time circa 1963, in the midst of programmes about Victorian Monarchs and Nineteen Fifties Midwifes. Nostalgism, often for periods of time that no-one can remember, is always the dominant mode in English life. At least most of the audience spend an infarction of ‘Land Hope and Glory’ staring awkwardly at their feet, thereby leaving only a few people waving plastic Union Jack flags.

The following day I visit Northampton. It’s a somewhat forgotten town, as is evidenced by the number of rough sleepers on its rather rough high street. The Guildhall as a statue of the town’s most famous son, the former Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, whose main claim to fame was being the only British Premier assassinated in office. But it is nonetheless rather rich in history; a walk from the train station into town takes you past the remains of the castle and the Norman church of St Peter. The Northamptonshire stone is an orange ochre colour that is as distinct as the pink in Herefordshire or the honey colour of Bath stone. In the case of St Peter, the exterior is composed of layers of white and brown stone, while the interior includes a number of Romanesque carvings. As you come to the town centre the first thing you see if All Saints, a Georgian church that manages to include a portico and a dome on something that is otherwise a conventional parish church. Nearby is Guildhall, which is a beautifully elaborate piece of Victorian gothic comparable to anything by Pugin or Scott. I like how details of horseracing have replaced medieval scenes in the stiff leaf carvings. Walking on further, I come to the main thing I’d wanted to visit; 78 Derngate, the only surviving work by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in England. The building is a rather cramped and narrow terrace house, owned at the time by the owner of a company manufacturing model railways. Mackintosh did not visit but did provide designs for the interior. The most startling example of this is a rather small dining room, entirely decorated in black, with thing chequered lines leading up to a frieze of gold triangles, depicting a form of art deco forest. The effect is both rather striking and rather claustrophobic in a room this size. The owner was colour blind, so yellows were used as a preferred colour throughout, leading to the gold triangles becoming a motif. Later on I walk past some redbrick Victorian factories on the river (now inevitably rebuilt as housing) out from the town towards the Eleanor cross. It’s a really impressive thing, surviving where so many of its contemporaries did not and retaining much the same detail as its Victorian simulacrum at Charing Cross.

A few weeks later, and I take the train to Portchester. The castle here dates back to Roman times and is mostly a survival from Norman times; long since surpassed by Portsmouth, the castle feels like something of a time capsule. I walk in through pebble-dash suburban housing until I reach the external walls of the castle. The area inside is rather large but the only building inside are the keep and the church of St Mary. Walking to the other side through the landgate, and you can see sailing boats. Over the glimmering water rises the towers of Portsmouth dockyards.

The following week I have a brief visit to Edinburgh. I spend some time in Gilbert Scott’s Episcopal cathedral, with its Paolozzi stained glass and the church of St Cuthbert, with its Tiffany stained glass.

The Tate’s exhibition on The Shape of Light is an attempt to create a parallel history for photography as a form of abstract art. It covers various possible techniques for this, such as using perspective to dwell on abstract detail (so that Lorca’s Mondrian Windows is placed next to a Mondrian painting, Coburn’s vortographs are paralleled to Lewis’s vorticist painting or a Bourke White photo of a transmission tower is placed near one of Moholy-Nagy’s geometric paintings), interfering with the film chemistry (so that Jackson Pollock is paralleled to photographers like Roger Parry or Hannes Beckmann), circumventing the use of a camera (as with Vitkine’s use of an oscilloscope, Kolarova’s use of Roentgeonograms or Kasten’s use of cyanotypes), painting with light (so that Man Ray is paralleled to Otto Steinert) or by dwelling on found detail (so that Aaron Siskind’s photos of cracking paint are placed near Villeghe’s accretion of Parisian posters).

I’ve just finished reading Malaparte’s Skin. Malaparte’s dominant style is one of irony; much of the book is dedicated to the exposition of how winning a war was an act of shame or that American soldiers became a form of slave labour for the impoverished population of Naples. The most obvious example is his claim that he had found Casa Malaparte pre-built but he had designed the surrounding scenery of Capri. Such irony tends to dissolve normal binary oppositions and the novel accordingly is ambivalent on this score. The same applies to questions of form as much as style, as the novel oscillates between realism and gothic fantasy and often attempts to collapse the distinction between the two (as when Malaparte answers a question about how much of his books are true by fooling a French general into believing that he has just eaten a hand that had been missing since its owner had stepped on a mine). Much of the novel depicts the American soldiers occupying Italy as innocents within a depraved and corrupt civilisation. But it equally attributes much of its degradation to the war, as with Malaparte’s twin insistence that Naples has always been a heart of darkness for immorality and slavery and that the present corruption of Naples is on an abhorrent scale never been known before the war.  A great deal of the novel equally depicts Italy as a Sodom or a Gomorrah facing the rain of fire, where the embrace of freedom is simply an excuse for perversion and depravity.

Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting narrative is a sort of inverted Robinson Crusoe, written from the perspective of Friday. I’m struck by how the narration occupies two perspectives, one that could be loosely termed Equiano’s, the former slave, who pleads for its abolition and the other Vasa’s (the European name given to him), who acts as a missionary to his fellow Africans in spite of repeatedly describing European society as far more immoral.

Reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, I’m reminded of Sontag’s observation about our tendency to ascribe metaphysical characteristics to medical or physical conditions where in reality there are none. Dealing with an intersex protagonist, Middlesex is replete with metaphysical aspects, many of them contradictory. One is clearly Biblical (subtly indicated by a character called Milton), with the exodus from Smyrna representing a form of fall into sin. One is mythological, with references to Plato and Ovid on hermaphroditism. Genetics is equated to fate, so that the incest leads to the intersex condition years later, something touched on with Cal’s casting as Tiresias in a school production of Antigone. In reality, incest has little connection with intersex children. But the novel also has a social dimension, covering the immigrant experience in America and the fall of Detroit; in this case, it plays on the theme of self-reinvention as an aspect of American life typifying Cal’s transition from female to male. The consequence is that the novel sets up a tension between the failure of Luce’s theories due to the rise of evolutionary biology versus Zora’s assertion that gender is cultural.


They do it with mirrors

The National Gallery has a small exhibition on Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites, based around the Gallery’s acquisition of The Marriage of Arnolfini at a time when it lacked a wider collection for North Europe. Some of the comparison holds well; both Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites tended to paint in meticulous detail, but the exhibition mostly dwells on the impact of the convex mirror in the Arnolfini portrait. Hunt’s Awakening Conscience, Burne-Jones’ Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor, Rosetti’s Lucrezia Borgia all use the trope, with Holman Hunt’s Lady of Shalott being the most famous example. Later examples include portraits by William Orpen and a self-portrait by Mark Gertler.

The following week I go to the British Museum’s Scythian exhibition. As you would expect for a Nomadic people, the exhibits are essentially grave goods, dwelling on their horses, weaponry and clothing. The goldwork is perhaps the item that stands out most, with a range of buckles and studs carved to show images of hunting. There’s also a great deal of elaborately carved wooden headgear, some worn by the warriors themselves and some by their horses.  It also dwells on the graves themselves, constructed out of logs and housing bodies that had been mummified due to the impossibility of burial during the winter. A decapitated head, tattooed skin fragments and cay death masks feature here. Overall, the exhibition is fertile territory for a game of ‘high status’ bingo, with bonus points to the word ‘ritual.’ Other things that stand out; a Kneller portrait of Peter the Great and a set of drawings of St Petersburg from that time. There are a series of depictions of the Scythians from other cultures, such as a Greek vase and Persian carvings.

Later, I go to St-Botolph-without-Aldgate for The Fourth Choir‘s Chiesa d’Oro concert. The first half of the concert was music from or influenced by Venice of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some numbers were a capella, others accompanied by a theorbo, which I can safely say I have never seen wearing a woolly hat before. The concert included works by Schütz, Gabrieli, and Monteverdi, with Giovanni Legrenzi’s O vos insipientes mortales being particularly striking. It was also interesting to hear a piece by a female composer, Barbara Strozzi. I was perhaps less enthused by the second half, which dwells on contemporary music, although Kim André Arnesen’s Even When He is Silent stands out, being a setting of an anonymous poem scratched onto a wall of a concentration camp. From Venetian music in a Baroque church to Baroque music in a Gothic church, the following week I go to a New Choir performance of Handel and Bononcini in the Church of St John the Evangelist. There’s a full ensemble and soloists here and the church is much larger, making for a fuller but perhaps less intimate performance than the previous week.

A few weeks later and I’m at the Tate for their Impressionism in London exhibition.If anything, this is three exhibitions; French art at the time of the Commune, Tissot in London and only then the Impressionists in London. Of the first, I’m struck by a photo of the Tuileries in ruins; with a long exposure the apparently deserted sepia photo is populated by the ghosts of people passing in front of it. The paintings range from the apocalyptic (Corot imagining Paris in flames), the symbolic (Dore showing a sister of charity rescuing an orphaned child as the city burns) to documentary (Tissot’s sketches of the war wounded in the requisitioned Theatre Francais). His painting and letters describing the execution of the Communds stand out particularly. English ruin tourism to a Paris devastated in this period was apparently popular and it’s noticeable that a lot of the paintings showing the city in ruins were by Dutch rather than french artists.

In the second exhibition, Tissot has essentially created a new school of art; where French impressionism dwelt on nature and English art either preferred rural sentimentality or Pre-Raphaelite mythology, Tissot dwelt on social realism. The son of a tailer, he detailed how people dressed and behaved, showing society balls, garden parties and boat rides along the Thames. Criticised as having a French sense of morality (one man and two women together in a boat counted as immoral) it’s a more accurate sense of London than any Englishman of the time recorded. Much the same applies to Giuseppe de Nittis, with his paintings of Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament in the fog. Finally, the last exhibition gets round to the Impressionists. The highlights here are undoubtedly Monet’s series showing the Houses of Parliament along with Whistler’s nocturnes of the Thames. London fog appealed to the impressionist aesthetic but this only works for urban scenes; Sisley and Pissaro’s depictions of Sydenham, Kew and Hampton Court are picturesque but far from Monet’s depictions of rural France. Perhaps the most extraordinary piece is a view of Leicester Square lit up in the dark; it rather reminds me of the sort of work the Futurists were undertaking. As I walked back along the Embankment to Westminster, the sky is a pale blue with strands of dark cloud lazily uncoiling across it. The fading sunlight falls onto the Houses of Parliament washing the honey coloured stone in pink.

Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is a novel of two contrapunctal movements, epitomised in the split between the narrator and Mustafa Sa’eed. Both are former Sudanese expatriates heavily exposed to Western culture and both are presented as mirror images of the other (as when the narrator enters Sa’eed’s study and believes he is seeing a portrait of Sa’eed before he realises it is a mirror). The novel deploys various ways to consider the nature of an expatriate experience that leaves individuals caught between two cultures, as when it mentions a tree that has been grafted to produce oranges and lemons, with the implication that the fruit is sterile. Similarly, Sa’eed creates an Eastern style interior to his bedroom in London later counterpointed by his Western style study on the banks of the Nile.

The role of the narrator in the novel is to look at events in Sudan through the eyes of a Westernised civil servant working to modernise the country’s infrastructure. When Sa’eed’s widow is forced to remarry against her will and kills both herself and her aged husband, it emerges as an indictment of the patriarchal Sudanese culture (although the novel implies that had the narrator agreed to a polygamous marriage with the widow she would still be alive). For a novel in which the role of woman is pivotal, it remains an oddity as to how absent they largely are, only emerging out of the shadows at key points. Conversely, Sa’eed attempts to invert the role of Othello in England, by adopting the role of the predatory libertine, saying “I have come to you as a conqueror.” Unlike his Shakespearean counterpart, he implies that he was no passive or innocent victim of events; “I am no Othello.” The truth of this is something the novel debates. Sa’ed’s seduction techniques rely on presenting himself as an exoticised other, in a way that belies his status as a respected Establishment figure, leaving his conquests in the role of Orientalist and him as their subject. Certainly the pivotal scenes with Jean Morris suggest that he is indeed playing the role of Othello, with her cast as both Iago and Desdemona combined. His role in her death is arguably little more than that of an instrument, hence the debate about the question of his agency in the trial scenes.

Prison literature is a particularly Russian genre, thinking of the various accounts by Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn in particular. Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist feels like an attempt to recast the genre in an American context. Guilty of attempting to assassinate the industrialist Henry Clay Frick, it’s reasonable to argue that Berkman does not get treated in the manner of a conventional criminal and his account does clearly depict a system that was both corrupt and inhumane. Equally though, Berkman’s view of human life is disturbingly instrumental and much of his account demonstrates little sympathy for his actions from the strikers he had sought to defend. Instead throughout, he sees his fellow inmates as victims of false consciousness.

The Gathering Storm

Amidst leaden skies and continual drizzle, a planned visit to Nymans had to be hurriedly substituted for a trip to Chartwell.  Tickets were timed, so I wandered around the grounds with an umbrella for a while, through a series of ornamental lakes lined with Gunera to a kitchen garden. The Ducks and ornamental Carp seem unperturbed by the rain.  The walls of Churchill’s old studio are still lined with his paintings, mostly of the South of France or Italy. A painting of his father still rests on an easel while a painting of the Yalta conference hangs nearby. Walking back to the house, there’s a museum of Churchill memorabilia; carved Russian glass vases, Delft plates in honour of the liberation of the Hague and caskets from Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. Much of the rest of the interior is perhaps rather drab; a sort of oversized version of an suburban house.

A few days later and I find myself at the Royal Academy’s Giorgione exhibition. Like the previous Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery, this is less about one subject and more about the era, featuring works from Titian, Bellini and Durer.  The most striking works are probably the portraits. Bellini and Durer tend to show their subject against landscapes or plain backgrounds; Giorgione shows a knight in full armour with his groom or a master and his servant, placing the subject into a context.

Later that week and I’m at the Royal Festival Hall. I’ve not been there before; I generally feel that the exterior of the building is nondescript, the interior is maze-like (and leaves you suspecting that you have arrived back in the early sixties) but the actual hall and its acoustics are rather pleasant. I’m here to see a performance of JenůfaAs with my experience of Osud a few years back, I’m struck by how each piece would work as a novel or play without the music; in this case, much of the story seems to recall a Hardy novel but the lack of inevitability in the ending and the avoidance of further tragedy comes as an interesting surprise.


I went to the Roundhouse in Camden this week for a performance of Orfeo. I hadn’t been to that venue before and it does seem ideal for that sort of performance; a circular stage in the centre of the theatre with a Globe style gallery erected at one side (in this case, the gods can speak from the upper level and the Baroque orchestra can play beneath) and a long gangway to a door on the upper level opposite; when the theatre is dimly lit this serves perfectly in this context as the door to and from the underworld. In addition, much of the performance uses climbing ropes hung from the ceiling to allow the actors to move up and down (e.g. when the soul ascends at the end of the performance), making for a performance that freely utilises space. The music was beautifully performed throughout but aspects of the performance did seem questionable; dressing everyone is grey clothing in the first act did make me wonder if we were already in the underworld while the presence of child dancers rolling around on the ground added little.

A few weeks later and I visit the disused Aldwych station on the Strand. We pass from the oxblood tiled exterior to an entrance hall lined with green emerald tiles before heading downwards into a labyrinth of empty corridors. The first station platform we visit has various 1940s posters advertising foodstuffs or evacuating children to the country; replicas as it turns out, for a 2008 film; a second platform has genuine posters from the seventies; I note one advertising the benefits of the common market. Other parts of the station equally relate to its status as a film set, such as a Bakerloo line sign from Mr Selfridge. Finally, I get to stand on the tracks in an darkened tunnel before re-emerging back out on the Embankment.

A few weeks later again and I’m at the Tate for its exhibitions of Victorian sculpture and photography. The sculpture exhibition dwells on items like Chantrey’s busts of Queen Victoria, Gilbert Scott’s replicas of Westminster Abbey tombs, replicas of the tombs of Queen Elizabeth and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Minton ceramics of peacocks and a white elephant, replica friezes from the Parthenon, extraordinary linden wood carvings from Wilkinson Wallis, Raffael Monti’s Veiled Vestal Virginthe silver gothic Eglington Trophy by Edmund Cotterill, the Greek Slave by Hiram Powers, a sculpture of Earl of Winchester in chain mail from the Houses of Parliament, a chess match between Queen Elizabeth (again) and Philip of Spain to Leighton’s Athlete Wrestling with a Python. The antiquarian and classical focus of much of the subjects contracts with the use of mass production to create them, from electro-plating through to the use of parian ware. The other half of the exhibition is early salt print photography, much of which used this technology to take photographs of medieval and classical buildings. Fox Talbot obviously features prominently, with photos ranging from the famous elm at Lacock to still lives of glass vases. The other artist who stands out was Roger Fenton, with his photos of the Crimean war. Later on, I walk through the parks and have a look at the Swans, Red Breasted Geese and Pochards before passing by an SWP demonstration at Trafalgar Square, where the skeletal Gift Horse has been added to the fourth plinth.

Food cooked: Spare ribs with chestnuts and raisins, Chicken with garlic and lemon, Swedish sausage hash, Corsican beef, Balinese spiced duck, Chicken fricassee with gherkins and paprika, Fish stew with orange and peppers,  Cannelloni stuffed with chicken livers, Feijoada, Sauerbraten, Lamb with hasselback potatoes, Piri piri chicken with patatas bravas, Pastitsio, Fish sauce chicken, Satay chicken Chili con carne, Buffalo burger with Boston baked beans, Singapore Laksa, Pork cooked in milk.

Birds seen: Nuthatch, Woodpecker, Goldfinch.


Open House weekend in London begins with a visit to the Reform Club. This is a wonderfully theatrical interior, with an enclosed central courtyard leading off into apparently long galleries where an illusion of space is created by mirrors. Mirrors above fireplaces prove to simply be windows into other rooms. The effect of the interior is one of deception; copies of Parthenon friezes are made of papier mache while wooden pillars are painted to resemble marble. The building design is intended to imitate the Farnesi palace, but the grey stone looks utterly unlike anything in Rome. Rooms are often given names that don’t match their function; the guide delights in pointing out that coffee is not available in the coffer room. I rather like the ban placed on usage of mobiles, tablets and laptops. After that, I visit the nearby Queen’s chapel before going on a tour of St Pancras Chambers; this is actually rather disappointing compared to the tour I went on years ago before the restoration. I can see the base of the grand staircase but no further-up. I do get to see the clock tower though. After that, I go to Chartered Accountant’s Hall in Moorgate. This was obiously built with a lot of money originally; a main hall is surmounted by a dome cupola with a chandelier hanging from it, while frescos cover the walls and the windows are filled with stained glass. I’m rather perturbed by a copy of the Rialto bridge in the library. Other sections are perhaps more what you’d expect; a drab extension only enlivened by Paolozzi tapestries and Piper paintings. I then have a look at some Wren churches and notice that on a grey dull day the top of the Shard has disappeared in the fog. I’d seen this sort of thing in New York but never before in London. I also have a look at the moat of the Tower of London, filled with ceramic red poppies as a WW1 memorial. Lastly on that day, I go on a tour of 55 Broadway, up the roof garden where there’s a view over a rather grey London.

The following day, I go on a tour of 2 Temple Place, looking at the Shakespearian friezes and sculptures from the Four Musketeers. After that, I head out to East London for a tour of Abbey Mills. East London is rather depressing, a souless place with lots of modern skyscrapers next to a dual carriageway. Abbey Mills itself is wonderful though; the building exterior is studded with Minton tiling and friezes showing roses and ferns. The interior is much more up to date than Crossness but the wonderful lantern at the centre is far more ornate. After this, we walk round the exterior with the remains of the old chimneys. I then head back to where I started and go round Middle Temple Hall and the Temple church.

The following weekend I go back into London. There’s a Japanese festival on in Trafalgar Square and a bizarre Yurukyara show is underway on a large stage, featuring Tagatan (mascot of Tagawa, Fukuoka Prefecture) and Sanomaru (mascot of Sano-city). Very odd. I go for a brief look in the National Gallery, including the new Bellows painting. That evening I go to a performance of Verdi’s Otello at the Coliseum. The staging of this is very well done; the lights are set low and the actors cast tall shadows on the walls. Much of the stage is in muted light throughout with a fire at the centre lighting it. There’s a particularly effective moment where Desdemona is lying in the dark and a door on the other side of the stage opens and a beam of light is cast towards her. Otello’s shadow becomes visible in the light before he can be seen himself. Since the play requires very little action as such, the director does rather over-compensate by having the actors occasionally throw themselves on the floor. A few weeks later and I’m back at the Coliseum for a performance of La Boheme; muscially, I find Puccini a lot less interesting than Verdi but the staging and overall performance seem much more satisfying. As often with ENO I’m impressed by the staging; a Montmartre garret can be divided in two and swiveled round to form a street scene so that it switches between interior and exterior. Ranging between twilight cafe scenes lit by candlelight and harsh winter scenes, it feels cinematic in its realism.

I’ve been reading Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, a postmodern recasting of Great Expectations. Much of the retelling dwells on a more modern interpretation of the Victorian period (abortion, prostitution and the suicide of a gay character loom throughout). A character obviously based on Dickens begins by attempting to use Maggs as source material for his writing, manipulating him through mesmerism, but his control slips and the character begins to write his own story.


I‘m not planning to go to too many proms this year but the Wagner bicentenary does offer a chance to see most of Wagner’s major operas. Tannhäuser is a relatively uncomplicated moral fable; sensuality must be renounced and the road to salvation can only be attained through suffering and death with the distinction encapsulated in the Virgin/Whore figures of Venus and Elizabeth. Parsifal resembles Tannhäuser in several respects, with the flower maidens fulfilling the same role as the Venusberg. However, although Kundry plays the role of temptress to some extent, there is no equivalent for the figures of Venus and Elizabeth; if anything Kundry more resembles the wandering outcasts who are usually male in Wager’s operas. In Tristan and Isolde where Isolde combines both of these roles Wagner simultaneously sees love as something transcendental, destructive and emasculating; hence Tristan’s defeat in combat and the deliberate blurring of whether their love is attributable to the deus ex machina of the potion or whether love is to be experienced as a form of involuntary madness. Walking back to Paddington after the Parsifal I hear owls in Hyde Park.

The Royal Academy’s Mexican art exhibition has both the strengths and weaknesses of a historical survey; it downplays the more famous artists (it only has one small Frida Kahlo self portrait and one larger Diego Rivera painting) but does offer a wider picture of the period. Organised chronologically, it begins with the Mexican revolution with Hugo Brehme’s photos and calavera prints; Francisco Goitia’s painting of a Zacatecan landscape stands out most here. The mask-like painting of Zapata by David Alfaro Siqueiros also stands out. Perhaps oddly for a survey of Mexican art, quite a lot of attention is given to photographs taken by Bresson and Edward Weston of Mexican pyramids or portraits of figures like DH Lawrence. Laura Gilpin’s photos of Chichen Itza also stand out. If anything, I like the photography of Manuel Alvarez Bravo rather more, with photos of carousel horses, a box of visions, Mexican elections, crime victims, dancing puppets and firemen that look like Venetian plague doctors. I also like the paintings of Marsden Hartley of the Mexican landscape, painting the simplest shapes with the boldest primary colours.

A few weeks later, I spend an afternoon visiting Guildford. The modern cathedral bears interesting comparison with that at Coventry. From the outside, for all its striking position the cathedral rather resembles a parish church of the same period. The interior retains more of the trappings of a cathedral, with the decorative jouissance characteristic of gothic replaced by austere minimalism. The result is rather more likeable than Coventry, with the interior flooded wit light rather than the gloom within its counterpart, although it lack the wealth of sculptural and artistic detail that Coventry has (excepting the Eric Gill sculptures on the outside). The castle in Guildford is rather more impressive; a surviving Norman keep surrounded by a park. The view from the keep looks out over the cathedral hill and over to the skyscrapers of Wokig in the distance.

The following week I decide to visit Evesham in Worcestershire. The Abbey park is an odd placed, with the remains of the dissolved abbey accompanied by two nearby churches. The church of St Lawrence has suffered somewhat from Victorian restoration; the Preedy stained glass windows are somewhat famed locally but I can’t really bring myself to like them. What is interesting is the Lichfield chantry chapel, with its fan vaulted ceiling and font lined with grotesque carvings. Again, with the nearby All Saints church the most interesting thing is the Montfort chapel with its fan vaulting ceiling but the rest of the interior has again suffered somewhat at Preedy’s hands. Outside, I have a look at the old abbey bell tower and arch.

Dorothy Parker is one of those writers principally known through reputation only, with that reputation resting precariously on a number of lines from her poems and bon mots. In practice though, these lines seem somewhat unrepresentative of her work which often seems to more resemble late Victorian romanticism than Wilde or Rochefoucauld; although in several cases the more satirical voice in Parker’s work deliberately undermines the more stately romantic one, they often seem parallel and unrelated strands of her work. Her critical works perhaps conform better to the impression one might have had of her, although inevitably in a lot of cases her subject matter has now fallen into obscurity. In a lot of cases, her judgements seem prescient and acute; as in defending Nabokov, Hemingway and Lawrence.But equally, she praises Nevil Shute while castigating Kerouac.

Eros and Anteros

Back down South, I go to the Edvard Munch exhibition at the Tate. In a lot of ways, Munch reminds me of Kafka, his work resembling a drama or film but one where the meaning of a scene is withheld; Two Human Beings is a case in point, where the two figures standing by the shore points to a wider dramatic implication whose meaning lies outside the picture. A lot of the subjects are inherently dramatic, as with his paintings of fires in Oslo. This sense is more marked with pictures like Murder on the Road or Red Virginia Creeper of then paintings Munch did as part of his set for Ibsen’s plays where the figures stare out of the frame and through the fourth wall. The exhibition dwells on Munch’s work in an age of mechanical reproduction, the parallels with photography and film (many of the perspectical techniques in his paintings arise from film) and the repeated replications of his paintings, whereby works like The Vampire, The Sick Child and Ashes were recreated on several occasions.

A few weeks later, I visit the Royal Academy’s exhibition of French art from the Clark Institute. Being derived from a personal collection it has both the advantage and disadvantage of stemming from the taste of one man. The landscapes range from Jongkind’s Frigates (a typically Dutch maritime scene) and Rousseau’s Farm in the Landes (which could be the work of Gainsborough) and traditional country scenes from Troyon and Millet to Monet, Sisley and Pissarro. The Pissarro collection tends to stand out, ranging from realist depictions of factories and merchant ships to pointillist landscapes. Renoir features heavily with paintings of the Doge’s palace and the bay of Naples. The portraits are rather more lacklustre, with a number of works by Manet, Renoir and Degas as well as Dutch style portraits by Stevens and more realistic paintings by Tissot and Boldoni. A set of orientalist scenes by Gerome are quite striking, if only for combining intricate details of Iznik ceramics with incorrect scenes showing Turkish snake charming. The most interesting portrait is probably one of Gauguin’s Breton paintings.

I then go to the proms for Judas Maccabeus and Pelleas at Melisande. The latter resembles a modern film soundtrack as much as an opera, with the narrative partially resembling a nineteenth century tale of domestic adultery in the vein of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary and partially resembling a gothic novel or a fairytale. Maeterlinck was interested in Schopenhauer’s ideas on fate, as well as holding that the juxtaposition of eros and anteros forces brings about a never-ending cycle of calm followed by discord and then change. Nonetheless, although the narrative has to follow an archetypal pattern in which the character’s own strugglings doom them, as is the case in a novel they do engage sympathy throughout, in a manner that makes their fate seem unjust, even as it is shown to restore order. This seems to come over in the imagery whereby light and dark, death and life are conflated throughout.

Outside London, the reappearance of the sun after weeks of rain allows me to pay a brief visit to Romsey Abbey in Hampshire. A similar Romanesque structure to that at the nearby Kingsclere but perhaps more ornate and better furnished with various elaborate monuments and stained glass by Henry Holiday and Kempe. Some of the nave reminds me of Christ Church in Oxford. Nearby, I visit Mottisfont Abbey. The last time I visited it was early in the year; this time, the flowers in the walled garden were fully in bloom and fish were swimming in the river Test as it passed by the Abbey. On the way back, I visit Highclere Castle, a building transformed into a gothic revival style by Charles Barry. The interior is not the finest of Victorian but does have various Canaletto, Reynolds and Van Dyck paintings as well as a set of medieval tapestires hung up in the great hall. Most interesting is the exhibition of artefacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb; gold chairs, shabti, Alabaster vases, Canopic jars, faience sistrums, a sculpture of the King as a Harpooner and a wooden mannequin of the King.

Open Season

This year, summer has not so much passed gently away into autumn as violently and convulsively expired. From a searingly hot summer that I remember as a blur of white light and omnipresent heat, it gave way to thunder storms and monsoon rains. Yesterday, as the rain relented the sky was surmounted by two concentric rainbow rings, the inner bright and vivid with sky lighter inside it than outside, the outer fainter in the grey. That night the harvest moon was brilliant in the sky, and its cold light streamed through the windows.

Being autumn, this means the end of the Proms season. The performance of Debussy’s L’Apres Midi d’un Faune and La Mer is perhaps not quite right for the Royal Albert Hall. Debussy seems to require a more intimate setting, whereas the Albert Hall seems to swallow the music. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has no such difficulties though. The same applies to Monteverdi’s Vespers, which are brilliantly performed; with singers emerging from the wings in mid performance, answering each other from opposite sides of the hall and ghostly echos and children’s voices descending from the gallery.

It also means a few weeks of Open Heritage Days. In Oxford, I begin with Wadham, whose the chapel has a truly bizarre monument, of a skull flanked by two dolphins alongside a plaque to John Wilmot featuring an equally bizarre Yale of Beaufort. Nuffield always seems an odd place; the sandstone and copper are all correct for an Oxford college but the modern design with its sharp edges seems to long to be aged and softened. The chapel is rather small and hidden away, with a matchingly plain interior – except for the John Piper designed stained glass. Pairs of windows appear in different colours, with light streaming brilliantly through a pair of cobat blue windows. The dining hall is rather odd, with a bright red ceiling and a heraldic crest featuring a red bull and a green beaver – both recur in the town hall later, alongside an elephant. Inside the town hall, the council chamber and courtrooms are open (although much of the rest of the building proves to be shut). Two contrasting churches follow. Firstly, the Wesleyan Memorial Church; unsurprisingly rather plain although its rose window is rather beautiful. Secondly, St Barnabas. I’ve wanted to see the inside of this since I saw the model for its design at Torcello. The interior is thick with incense while light streams down from the upper windows, obscuring the gold and blue apse design. The presence of a recent set of orthodox icons in the baptistry makes it look rather more like its Venetian counterpart. The main thing I’d wanted to see was the interior of All Souls. The interior is remarkable in its accretion of different styles into a unity; a medieval building, with a baroque screen by James Thornhill and a set of Victorian reredos by Gilbert Scott. On the other side of the quadrangle, I’m amused that the elaborate sundial’s position renders it completely useless, after its original position was used by the local clockmakers. Behind it, the Codrington Library lacks the ramshackle antiquarianism of some of the libraries I’ve seen, but rather makes up for it in scale, with two large marble statues dominating its length. Finally, I visit the great hall at Exeter, which rather leaves me reminded of the Middle Temple in London.

In London the following week, I walk for a bit around the East End, noting the French window shutters on the old Huguenot houses in Spitalfields, before heading down to the Burnel Museum in Rotherhithe. This area has a beautiful view on a stretch of the Thames sufficiently wide as to make the other shore look as if it belongs to another country. The church of Saint Mary towers over the nearby warehouses while the museum itself is rather innocuous with only a chimney to give it away. What’s striking is below ground; the entrance hall to Brunel’s Thames tunnel. I shin over a wall, crawl through a narrow entrance, climb down some scaffolding and find myself in the remains of the entrance hall with the sound of trains and water pumps throbbing beneath.

Open House proper doesn’t start until the next week though, where I find myself in Tower Hill to visit Trinity House, home to the body charged with operating lighthouses. The building was designed with Samuel Wyatt and has a wonderful domed ceiling above a grand staircase flanked by two mariner statues at the base and caryatids at the summit. Models of ships and lighthouses are to be found on cabinets in all of the rooms, while various naval crests compete with portraits of various royals and politicians on the walls. The next item on the itinerary is St Magnus the Martyr; never having been inside here before, I’m surprised at how cluttered the interior is. Models of god based around the Van Eyck painting I’d failed to see in Ghent compete with models of London Bridge, reliquary shrines, models of St Magnus (compete with horned helmets) and Ethiopian icons of St George. I then walk onto St Mary Abchurch, a building whose drab brick exterior is counterbalanced by the splendour of the frescos on a dome whose existence only becomes visible from inside. The rest of the interior is not nearly as interesting as St Magnus (Grinling Gibbons reredos aside), although I rather like the lion and unicorn carvings. On impulse, I then decide to visit the Lloyd’s buildings. I can’t say I really like liked this building with its lifts and ducting snaking around the exterior before, and although the size of the interior atrium is impressive the overall effect of the interior is to make one conclude that rarely has the future looked so seedy as an expanse of eighties logos and grubby carpets opens up before you. The main highlight is the Adams room on the top floor, although in these surroundings it does looks like as if you’ve walked onto the holodeck. One of the main highlights of my visit on that day turns out to be Marlborough House, the perfect counterpart to my visit to Blenheim earlier in the year. The main hall with its frescos with the Queen’s House in Greenwich matched by Laguerre’s paintings of the Battle of Blenheim is especially spectacular. The final place on that day was 26 Whitehall, the former Admiralty House (presently the Cabinet Office), which is mostly noteworthy for the Grinling Gibbons wood carving and wing dial in its boardroom.

The following day sees me in the city, at Draper’s Hall. Past a set of Tudor paintings in the main hall lies a set of Hogarth engravings tucked in a corner, showing the idle and industrious apprentices.I then ascend a staircase (improbably watched over by four Antinous clones) into an interior marked by a gallimaufry of decorative styles; sculptures by Thorvaldsen and Schadow share rooms with Gobelin tapestries and copies of the company’s charters. I then head out of the city into Islington and the former Finsbury Town Hall, a mixture of baroque and art nouveau. While the Clerkenwell angels, caryatids holding the gilded light fittings, are worth seeing in their own right, the place seems rather desultory, with its current role as a dance academy having left the rooms empty. After this, it’s a while before the other buildings I want to see open, so I head out to look at the Limehouse Accumulator Tower. This turns out to be one of the more impressive buildings of the day; on the outside the fissiparous brick is assaulted by ivy while the green Victorian ironwork inside is pockmarked and rusted. Nonetheless, the ascent of the spiral staircase leads to a cathedral-like interior. I return back to All Souls, Langham Place. Bombed during the war, the interior is rather disappointing, beyond a Victorian altar painting. I do note that the building does seem much larger on the inside than outside, especially with a large underground church hall beneath the building. I then travel downward to St Barnabas in Pimlico. Not a building I’d heard of before, it deserves to be better known, with a richly decorated interior that combines designs from Bodley & Butterfield, Ravenna mosaics and stained glass by Kempe and Comper. The last thing I see before leaving London is the Rudolf Steiner house. Being the solitary example of expressionist architecture in London makes its effect difficult to place; the curved surfaces remind me of art nouveau but the austere absence of surface decoration points in the other direction towards modernism.

Reading Woolf’s biography of Roger Fry, I found myself a bit bemused at the dichotomy it presents. A scientist by training (something that shows in his dismissal of mysticism as a set of crude answers in contrast to the provisional nature of truth offered in science), Fry is depicted as demoralised by the irrationalism that follows the first world war, embodied in movements like surrealism. By contrast, he sees himself as a nomadic classicist. However, he also has a marked streak of Lawrentian paganism, seeing Western civilisation as corrupt.

The Mastersingers

Tragedy is subversive, comedy is conformist. Where comedy incites us to laugh at the odd and unusual, tragedy elevates and dignifies it. Compare the ignoble fate meted out to Hotspur to the apotheosis of Antony and Cleopatra. Of course, in practice it would be supremely easy to invert my opening sentence and to create a case that tragedy marginalises the outside while comedy subserts the status quo, but it was still something going through my mind while watching a performance of Wagner’s Mastersingers of Nuremberg. Where the Ring Cycle or Tristan and Isolde depict passion as a chaotic force that destroys all in its wake, the Mastersingers is all about how it can be contained. Sachs even dwells on the possibility of events proceeding in the same direction as they did for Tristan, before Walther and Eva’s love leads them instead to marriage. Where Wagner’s other operas are generally aristocratic, Walther abandons that background in favour of Nuremberg’s burghers. The emphasis placed in the opera on art as a romantic expression of the national gesellschaft, something instinctive rather than a product of artifice shows Wagner at his most complex. On the one hand, his stress on folk art rather than elite culture (and the elevation of a cobbler to the status of protagonist) reflects his leftist politics. On the other, it forges a path towards Hitler’s admiration for Wagner and national socialism, with the depiction of Beckmesser, so reminiscent of Shakespeare in As You Like It, having some marked parallels with Wagner’s antisemitism, the dark side of his vision of a pre-capitalist Germany. The Prom immediately after the Mastersingers contains Rachmaninov’s 2nd piano concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, while a few weeks later the Mastersingers were back again; the overture being played in Lemare’s organ arrangement along with Tannhäuser and the Ride of the Valkyries.

The British Library’s maps exhibition turns out to be more interesting than I’d imagined, showing a combination of maps, globes, folded screens and posters. Much of the history of maps is as much about history or architecture as geography, as with a map of Europe that doubled as a visual record of the siege of Vienna or the many maps showing representations of the city’s buildings around their edges (such as the enormous Klencke altas, open here with views of the Low Counties). An elevated view of Seville from south of the Guadalquivir river shares its perspective and broad details with a view of London showing St Paul’s at the centre. In passing, I find myself wondering why this sort of perspective faded from view in the nineteenth century; presumably as cities grew larger a perspective equivalent to that obtainable from the naked eye became redundant. Inevitably maps also include views of the population, flora and fauna; a view of christian Europe include an appearance by Durer’s rhino in North Africa (inaccurately so as Durer had shown an Indian rhinoceros). The pre-Copernican worldview of the various Mappa Mundi designs in display shows geography and religion as co-terminous, with the earth as the body of the lord and Jerusalem as its omphalos. Grayson Perry’s Map of Nowhere presents a somewhat cynical post-religious revival of this tradition. Similarly, Stephen Walters shows London as an island, detached from the rest of Britain, although Booth’s poverty map or Gill’s Wunderground map are both absent. Maps of London abound but there’s no Harry Beck tube map or Great Bear pastiche. One other omission is foreign perspective; a Chinese artist paints a view of Guangzhiu harbour, but uses European rather than axonometric perspectives.

Some of the satirical maps are particularly. A pair of Victorian election maps show Gladstone and Disraeli astride the British Isles. Each map is for a different side in spite of both having been created by the same artist. Soviet maps castigate churches and synagogues for their wealth at a time of famine in Ukraine. A teatrade map seem to suggest that most of the world revolves around tea: “Saharah desert: no water to make tea.”

I’ve often thought that much of the tone and themes of Russian nineteenth century fiction lends itself well to the modern world. The hapless clerks in Gogol and Dostoevsky exist in a world where the bureaucracy deprives them of autonomy (as it could be said to with today’s ‘flexible’ markets), leading to a narrative form distanced from Western European realism and more deeply versed in the absurd. In the fiction of Daniil Kharms as much as in Kafka, the absurd emerges as a response to totalitarianism. At times, the absurdism is composed of a deliberate break from the quotidian into the fantastic. Often, that break is a form of violence (usually directed at little old ladies and children), something that hardly accorded with Soviet ideas of ostranenie of the kind the Oberiu declaration had endorsed ("look at an object with bare eyes and you will for the first time see it cleansed of its crumbling literary gilding . . . To cleanse the object of the rubbish of ancient, decayed cultures – is this not the real requirement of our times?"). At others, it lies in a bathetic collapse of the narrative, with nothing of any note happening. In one form reality is subverted, in another the literary form is subverted.

Cather’s The Professor’s House is an interesting case of the fable or romance elements of the American novel overlapping with the more social aspects of the European novel. In some respects, it’s a fable about the Professor regaining his earlier self; "The Kansas boy who had come back to St Peter this summer was not a scholar. He was a primitive. He was only interested in earth and woods and water." Conversely though, its polyphonic depictions of the two extremes represented by Tom and by Louie, of nature and civilisation is highly nuanced. One of the things that surprises me about The Divine Comedy is how theologically heterodox it must have seemed. Much of its vision is classical rather than christian, from the idea of an outer circle in hell for virtuous pagans to the presence of Cerberus and Charon. Equally, the repeated condemnations of church corruption buttressed by an emphasis on faith seems like an anticipation of Savonarola.

The Four Seasons (Remixed)

There can’t be many exhibitions that combined the opportunity to see John Dee’s scrying glass (actually an Aztec obsidian mirror) with the porcelain bowl that gave rise to Gray’s Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes. The V&A currently have an exhibition on the Horace Walpole’s collection of art and antiquities from Strawberry Hill, such as medieval armour, Italian maiolica, Sevres china, a wooden cravat carved by Grinling Gibbons, Boulle furniture, Elizabethan miniatures, a French enamel horn, a clock given by Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn and, oddly enough, Cardinal Wolsey’s hat.. It’s definitely not the Victorian idea of gothic; Walpole seems to have had a particular passion for Reynolds. Presumably he was less fond of Rowlandson’s caricature of Strawberry Hill as a catholic monastery. Hogarth seemed the best painter on offer.

In the evening, I go to Oxford for a concert; Vivaldi and Piazzolla’s versions of the Four Seasons (occasionally interspersing passages from them both, rather reminding me of the snippets from God Save the Queen erupting in Red Priest’s version of the Four Seasons). Although based on the Theatre of Marcellus, the Sheldonian reminds me more of the Globe, in its semi-circular design (with some of the audience behind the players) and the trompe l’oeil effects on the pillars.