John SINGER SARGENT

Some years ago I went to an exhibition of water colour sketches painted on his travels by (in my opinion) the greatest ever artist produced by these islands – J M W Turner. Although they were just quick impressions produced for the artist’s own pleasure, they captured the essence of each place, and I was interested to note that where I had also visited the location, although over a century had passed, my impression of it was much the same as Turner’s.

Last week I went with my daughter Elisabeth, and John and our grandson William, to an exhibition of watercolours by the American portrait painter John Singer Sargent, at the Dulwich picture gallery.

These were largely small landscapes (sketches) executed by Sargent at the end of his career when he had had enough of the demands made by sitters wanting their portraits painted, and took himself off, switched to watercolours and did landscapes.

I am a big fan of John Singer Sargent. In any exhibition of portraits, his will stand out in their excellence. He seems to have the knack of creaing a portrait that is a beautiful object in its own right; a reliable likeness of the subject; presumably a reasonably flattering portrayal because the clients liked them; BUT we the wider audience can see that, for example,  despite the youthful prettiness of the sitter, she is a shallow young woman thinking largely of how to satisfy her desire for clothes, jewels, social prominence etc.

The exhibition paintings are not what I expected. They do not have that deceptively fragile appearance of some watercolours which are misty and almost translucent. These are far brighter and deeper in colour than I had imagined. Some of them are unconventional in their presentation, looking at the subject from below or cutting it off where you don’t expect it. The written commentary in the art gallery suggested that the artist was forcing us to look at things differently. However I don’t believe that he was thinking about future audiences at all. I think he was acting entirely to please himself and what attracted him to these particular subjects was their degree of technical difficulty. He, of course, entirely overcame that.

I came across a sketch from his travels, of somewhere in Scotland. The British countryside is so diverse that if you have travelled through the UK extensively you know whether a picture is of Scotland, Yorkshire or Dorset, even if they are all apparently of the same tree. Sargent’s picture of Scotland lacks authenticity. It does not feel of heather and gorse and Atlantic wind. It is just a tree.

I have often wondered if a portrait painter makes a judgement of his sitter or if he just paints what he sees. John got a chalk drawing done of me once in Waverley Market in Edinburgh. I thought I would give the man doing the work the benefit of my wit and charm so having ascertained that if I held my position, conversation would not put him off, I set out to entertain him. I was however considerably taken aback when I asked him what he found most difficult about doing a portrait of someone and he replied: ‘Sometimes it is difficult to avoid being beguiled by the sitter.’ (We were pleased with the result, which is as grave and reflective a representation as I most truly am; but most friends have regarded it as not flattering.)

So, returning to Sargent, I came to the conclusion that his was a technical excellence; he was supremely good at putting paint to canvas in the image of what lay before him. So, in my opinion, John Singer Sargent is still very, very good.

Just not as good as Turner.

PS William is not (yet anyway) an admirer of John Singer Sargent. As soon as we entered the exhibition rooms he began to shout, Bye bye (which is his way of indicating that an interview is at an end,) and his melancholy and irritated cry punctuated our entire visit. Somehow I doubt if he would have been any more impressed by Turner!

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A QUESTION OF TASTE

A MATTER OF TASTE

I was reading in fascinated horror an article in the Saturday Times about an interior designer to the mega rich, one Celia Sawyer. There is a photograph of her in the write-up. She is a hard faced dyed blonde with long hair hanging down her back, I would guess in her 40s, blue nails, short black leather skirt, very high heeled gold boots. There are two illustrations of proposed dining room and bedroom for a client’s aeroplane, which have so much glitter and gilt I think I would feel ill if obliged to sit in them.

William Morris is famous for the saying, Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. The interesting word there is ‘believe’. Evidently he thought it was obvious whether or not an object was useful, but its beauty had an element of taste in being so regarded.

If you regard ‘good taste’ as having the capacity to discern quality and harmony and beauty in an object, then William Morris possessed this gift to a remarkable degree. If you visit his exquisite house in Kelmscott, Oxfordshire, you can see that he kept his embellishments of it to a minimum, allowing its natural beauty to shine through. He had ‘good taste’.

But these issues are not straightforward. We are often told that ‘real’ jewellery is in better taste than vulgar costume jewellery. Now I like to enhance my appearance with a little jewellery and I do have some modest pieces. But costume jewellery can look just as good – worn sparingly on the right person. It costs far less; it’s not a worry to wear it, and skilfully worn you can scarcely tell the difference. You can throw it away when you’re finished with it. But ‘real’ jewellery has baggage. It tells of your wealth; your family’s status if it is inherited; the love the giver had for you… Are these desirable qualities to hang round one’s neck like the albatross?​

I enjoyed reading the series of novels Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (which I assumed was a spoof mocking the snobbish pretensions of the upper classes. Sadly I later discovered that Powell was in deadly earnest!) The hero regarded himself as an expert on art and was scathing about the ‘vulgarity’ of those whose walls bore cheap, vulgar and nasty reproductions. Now it must be wonderful to be able to have in your sitting room an original work by a famous artist. But is a poor original by a lesser artist ‘better’ than a reproduction of some great work that appeals to you? I think what you decorate your walls with should be chosen on the same basis as that which adorns your person. You should choose what you can afford; what makes you feel good; what you enjoy. It is not admirable to choose things because someone else has labelled them ‘good’.

The Duchess of Windsor was famed for her elegance. Her beautiful clothes were designed to show off her jewellery. Her lover, briefly King of England, used to go to the vaults where the royal family stored uncut stones gifted to it (as representatives of their country) from the nations of the British empire. He would take handfuls of these emeralds, pearls, diamonds, etc and then wander round to Cartiers and empty his pockets of these treasures on to their tables. This would then be transformed into the jewellery the Duchess most famously wore. (NB The nations gifting those gems did not anticipate them being worn by the king’s mistress as she was when he first began giving them to her. It was first recognised she was his mistress because of the stunning jewellery she was wearing.) She was also well known for the elegance of her apartments. They were lovely: her taste was flawless, except that they were explicitly created and designed to impress, and as a result became unspeakably vulgar.

I had a friend many years ago in Scotland whose husband was invariably either about to become exceedingly rich or else about go bankrupt. They lived in a very large Victorian house parts of which would be sumptuously furnished while other rooms would be bare and unfurnished. The house was so large, her children used to cycle around inside, much to my children’s envy. As you entered the large hall, you were practically met at the door by an enormous gilt and glass chandelier (which later crashed to the floor, only marginally missing a workman.) A large downstairs room was converted into a cloakroom with white marble, glass and gold fittings, huge gold framed mirrors and red carpets. Decorating the vanity unit was a life sized glass swan. One felt it was rather indelicate to use the room for the purpose intended and the outsize mirrors only added to one’s discomfort. Her sitting room, a large high ceilinged room, had one wall grey and other three a vibrant pink. One sank into pink and cream long haired carpet, before slipping on white leather sofas. But what I especially marvelled at, and what I think summed up her whole philosophy, was the ornament given pride of place on a large glass coffee table. It was an enormous representation of Cinderella’s coach in glass, gold and ceramic,complete with the princess, the fairy godmother, the glass slippers – the whole dream. I loved going there because it was such fun. She was warm and generous. She had created this sugary nest which corresponded with her ideas of beauty. It certainly expressed the fantasy section of her quite childlike personality. She drew everyone in with her laughter, her kindness, her generosity. I knew it was not in the best possible taste, but going to hers was always fun. Certainly for a short visit, you could appreciate her exuberant enjoyment of her husband’s somewhat temporary wealth.

We’ve all been to houses where everything is of exquisite taste, designed to reflect the owner’s wealth, class, and education, and where the hostess has a veneer of social politeness (what Jane Austen would describe as ‘ well bred ‘ ) but little warmth. But wouldn’t you rather spend the evening somewhere more homely, where the paintings, perhaps though charming are a mixture of reproductions of Great Masters, amateur but good drawings of their children, and unknown artists portrayals of places in the world of significance to them? Where possibly their furniture isn’t antique, but a harmonious mixture of modern classic, Ikea and a lovely desk inherited from the hostess’s grandmother. The chairs may not be Chippendale, and a trifle shabby, but they are inviting and comfortable? Or even where the only decoration is a statue of Buddha and a print of Babar the elephant. What matters is how welcome and comfortable they make you feel.

I think it was Alan Clark who sneered at Michael Heseltine because he ‘bought his own furniture” (as opposed to inheriting it.) (Nothing at all wrong with inheriting it, of course.) Furniture is for using – sitting on, writing or eating at, etc. How you acquired it, as long as it’s legal, is neither here nor there.

Returning to Morris, furniture should be useful, fulfil it’s function, and it can be in the opinion of the owner, beautiful. But. in the long run, taste doesn’t matter. Kindness does.

MACHINE OVERLOAD

I sometimes think, with all our modern aids, that we are going to lose a lot of our natural abilities. It’s so easy,with Sat Nav to punch the coordinates in, and then voice and map take you there. Will future generations lose the ability to read maps and decide on a route? Can sailors still navigate by the stars?

We’ve had one of those weeks when you’re afraid even to look at a piece of equipment for fear it will break down.

The first casualty was our rain shower in our main bathroom. It shrank to an unsatisfactory trickle, accompanied by the most incredible noise. We hastily switched it off. We have another shower or bath, so that was inconvenient but manageable. The plumber has been and fixed the pump and that now runs as it should.

Then, as if in sympathy, an unbelievable series of crashes and bangs came from the central heating unit (not on for the heating at the moment, but heating the hot water). We switched that off. We have an electrical option for the hot water heating but it provides about a third of the water and it’s never what I’d call really hot. Apparently there is no connection between these two failures. The engineer has ordered the part and is coming shortly.

Then finally (or at least I hope it’s finally) the TV failed. I’ve staved my wrist and it’s still quite painful so I need to rest, not using my arm, and so watching TV alleviated the boredom. The problem had been caused by, so the help desk in Mumbai informed us, a download of data to our box (no, I don’t understand any of this either) by them, which proved too much for it. The news that the earliest resolution that could be expected was in 8 days time proved too much for John. I left him requesting to speak to someone in the UK (But I am speaking my very best English, sir…)

Frankly, I’m not too hopeful.

PS Oh me of little faith. John unearthed some old TV from somewhere, attached it to something mysterious in our bedroom, and abracadabra, as if by magic we have main channels. Plus a new box is to come a week sooner and at their expense, not ours.

A toast… To men. We don’t appreciate them enough. They may not be good at talking or ‘sharing their emotions’, but who cares about that when you don’t have hot water or TV?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RANDOM?

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TIGHT CORNERS

When you start to blog, you are advised to write regularly and reliably. So you undertake to write daily or weekly etc and you produce the articles as promised. It is by no means easy to maintain this.

You want to write meaningful, thought-provoking, topical blogs. You hope your writing is stylish and well crafted and you variously want your blogs to be witty, amusing, moving, provocative. Some lucky months you may be ahead by 5 or 6 written blogs, and all you have to do as the publication deadline approaches is select the one of your choice. But at other times you get bored with yourself and you find the deadline looming and you have nothing to say.

No political issue of the day engages your heart. (For example, I’m going to vote to remain in the EU, but I couldn’t say I felt passionately about it. I just think it’s probably better and besides you’re guessing in the dark for there’s precious few facts and what is touted you neither trust nor believe.) Nothing in the least funny has happened in the previous week. You can’t seem to dredge up any memory you can describe or expand upon. You don’t feel up to the mental effort of conjuring an entertaining piece from a start of: it rained the entire week and absolutely nothing happened except that I attempted a new recipe for casseroled chicken which wasn’t a success.

You wonder if you’re all written out and should retire from the field.

But the next week you observe some oddity that amuses you; or someone riles you; or something touches you, and, as they say, Bob’s your uncle.

When it flows easily, it’s fun. Yet some of your best pieces are produced from the tightest corners.

 

THE HOUSES OF OUR FORMER LIVES

Last year on our annual pilgrimage to the land of our birth, we indulged ourselves in some nostalgic revisiting of old haunts.

We visited John’s eldest son and his children, who live in Manchester, so we looked up where John had gone to school in Sale but we could only find the section for girls. Later we discovered that the boys’ school had been demolished and houses built on the site. We drove along roads he had walked and cycled and looked at houses that his parents and their friends had occupied.

In Glasgow we had lived – he for the first 12 years of his life and me for 6 months with my Grandparents – in much the same part of the city. He has more interest in re-visiting former homes than I do, but when we visited Holmwood House – another Alexander ‘Greek’ Thompson ‘masterpiece’ (not!) which backs on to a cemetery, I realised that my grandparents’ house was very near that same cemetery. I still had the map in my head, and I recalled the house number and street. I realised that the area of the city which you knew as a child, and walked or cycled and could remember and navigate was actually very small; just a grid of a few streets. There were some little detours off these well known streets that you could recall perhaps from trips to a library, the city centre, a friend’s house; but this recollection was vague and not to be relied on. I directed John to the address, somewhat to his surprise.

The house had fallen on hard times. The front garden was a weed strewn mess. The two rowan trees that had stood, guarding the house from evil spirits, were gone. I was glad I could not see into the ruin of the back garden where I had played for hours in the shade of a pergola covered in that lovely rose, New Dawn, still one of my great favourites The door and whole sections of the windows were crumbling into neglect.

Other houses in the street were in much better condition so it was not the area which had deteriorated; just this one house. I felt sorry for it. Once I had loved it, and my grandparents had looked after it, but nobody loved it now.

Then I thought, as I always do about things from the past – that is all gone. All we have of then are memories. The present reality of that house belongs to someone else’s life, and not mine. In my recollection of that house, the rowans will always guard the gateway; the pergola will always be heavy with scented roses, their buds pink on opening but fading into white; my brother, a beautiful boy with blonde hair and brown eyes will hide among the potato rows with their tiny purple flowers; my grandmother will carry a tray out with milk and biscuits for us and tea for them in pink fluted cups with gold stars; and my grandfather, with his wonderful masculine smell of honey, the smoke from the bellows used to subdue the bees, and pipe tobacco, will fall asleep in his deck chair while reading the paper.

It is strange to reflect that we in our turn have become the grandparent in the garden of someone else’s memory.

ALEXANDER – GREEK – THOMSON

I have often wondered what makes an architect fashionable?

On our travels last year we viewed the work of two very different architects – the cathedral at Coventry by Basil Spence, and Holmwood House, Glasgow by Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson.

I tend to be very critical of architects. The works of Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Renee Macintosh are beautiful and original and I am prepared to acknowledge this in their favour, I would gladly view their work wherever this is possible. Yet I would never have hired either of them as an architect (supposing that this had ever been possible) because their houses are built too strongly in their own image and not that of the buyer.

Although I have already indicated that I did not think Coventry Cathedral was well adapted to its purpose (which is what exactly? To illuminate feelings in the visitor of obedience to the god worshipped?) it was an original and interesting building.

This cannot be said of any of the majority of the buildings of Thomson. I thought his Holmwood House in Cathcart, Glasgow, exhibited some of the worst faults of his trade. The outside appearance of the house is messsy and complicated. Within, the main entertaining rooms are designed to impress, but behind them the family accommodation is poky and dark. When you enter the house you are confronted, straight before you by a glass door giving a clear view of the Victorian throne in a lavatory, and you wonder if Thomson is taking the proverbial?

Plastered on top of this sorry skeleton are ‘Greek’ detals, such as a pointless cupola over the stairwell, fresco type details of doubtful taste and/or authenticity, and adornments such as the key symbol which also graces some of the exteriors of his tenements. None of these details could be said to meld together into an attractive whole.

Surely the first purpose of an architect is to design a building fit for purpose; only after that do you want it to be practical, comfortable, safe and visually rewarding.

Maybe of course the owners of Thomson houses were only interested in impressing others with their wealth and culture, and were indifferent to the needs of their family and household and to any appeals for privacy and comfort – in which case it would appear that Alexander ‘ Greek’ Thomson was definitely the architect for them1 for its purpose? And then after that, you want it to be comfortable and visually pleasing, viewed from both within and without.

Maybe of course, the owners of the houses were only interested in impressing others with their wealth and culture and were not at all troubled by consideration of the interests and well being of their family and housrhold.     In which case Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson is probably the best architect for them!