Thursday, 18 December 2014

Thursday 18th December - Winter is Cold Hearted

Hello again Chaps, how are we all feeling?  All hanging in there? I hope people had the chance for a bit of a sit down and a cup of tea yesterday.  I had a bit of a think and dialed back some of my commitments so that I don't melt before next week. I just poured a bit more brandy on the cake.  I really need to stop doing that or else I'll be serving it in glasses come Christmas day.  I'm not saying that's a bad thing.

Right then, on with Blogvent...

Winter is Cold-Hearted Florence Harrison
Gosh, Florence Harrison, how we love you.  I must admit, I was always a big fan of Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale and her book illustration so overlooked Harrison, which was such a mistake.  Her work is in a flowing Art Nouveau style combined with very Pre-Raphaelite sensibilities, and the results are lovely.  Like EFB, I actually prefer Harrison's line drawings but the cool tones of this image, from a poem by Christina Rossetti, caught my eye.

'Winter is cold-hearted' is the first line in Rossetti's poem 'Summer':

Winter is cold-hearted,
        Spring is yea and nay,
Autumn is a weathercock
         Blown every way:
Summer days for me
         When every leaf is on its tree;

Rossetti concentrates on the wonder of Summer, the certainty and bounty of the season.  Spring and Autumn seem uncertain and Winter is 'cold-hearted', indifferent or cruel.  In Harrison's illustration, a cloaked woman seems to be brushing the last leaves from the spindly branches, making all bleak and sparse.  While it might just be that Rossetti loved the sun, it might also refer to relationships, where you knew the goodness of a person, the good things they could and would offer you and their feelings were steady and certain.  No-one needs to be in relationship with indifference, uncertainty or coldness, it's unfair and a waste of your love. Blimey, with a brother like hers, you could see her point.

Goblin Market
Harrison illustrated a collection of Rossetti's poems.  I love the hurry-hurry sense in her Goblin Market illustrations, the two sisters being caught up in something they cannot control and clinging to each other for support.  While Rossetti's brother showed Lizzie as the sensible, strong sister who saves Laura from her addiction, Harrison has the girls being blown around by the situation with an added sense of drama, until one sister can save the other by her own sacrifice.  It's like Frozen but with dodgy fruit and no talking snowman.

She Wept, I am Aweary, Aweary, O God that I were Dead
I really should have been paying more attention to the work of Harrison as she must have cropped up in my Master's thesis on Tennyson and Pre-Raphaelite imagery. Her 'Mariana' seems to echo that of the Pre-Raphaelites and artists such as Henrietta Rae or Marie Stillman (note the bottle-bottom window), and that look of a woman stuck indoors waiting for some ratweasel to call.  We're all been there, Babe, he's not calling. You'd be better off reading your book, Love.

I think my New Year's resolution ought to be to find out more about Florence Harrison and her marvellous illustrations, but for the meantime I ought to go and re-brandy the cake.  Don't worry, I have to add marzipan on Friday night so there is only so much damage I can do in the meantime.  Also, I only have so much brandy.  Such is life.

My pressie suggestion today is some lovely jewellery.  You may remember back in March I worked with the lovely people over at Eclectic Eccentricity (see my post here) when they launched a range of jewellery inspired by Pre-Raphaelites. My present suggestion is their Venus Rose Quartz Collar Necklace as it is made of gorgeous (and quartz). To buy from them, shop here.

See you tomorrow...

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Wednesday 17th December - A Christmas Morning

On we trot, and we are are only 8 days away from Christmas!  So much to do!  Cake, mince pies, croissants, knitted nativity (long story), cooking, cleaning, travelling!  And the dentist!  All before I can pull back the curtains on Christmas day...

A Christmas Morning Robert Gemmell Hutchison
It is becoming the Blogvent of Impressionist Scotsmen, and here we have Robert Gemmell Hutchison, born in Edinburgh in 1860 and best known for his breezy, glimmering seaside scenes.  However, today we have a girl opening up the curtains on Christmas morning.  The room is unwillingly allowing the light to steal in.  Actually, it's not light in the sense of daylight but the light reflected off the snow that fills the window-view.  I love how the loose brushwork seems to hint at snow falling inside as well.   The paleness of the scene, the gold of the curtains and the snow blends through to that pink bow on the back of the frock.  Is it a bow of an apron?  She's wearing a little cap too and her sleeves are rolled up for work.  Whoever she is, she appears to be 'unwrapping' the day, peeling back the curtains to reveal the beauty and wonder of Christmas.

Her First Christmas Robert Gemmell Hutchison
I think I am going to guess the figure in A Christmas Morning is just a girl, the daughter of the house maybe because Hutchison specialised in children. In Her First Christmas we see the beloved daughter about to wake up to a stocking and toys and all the joy of Christmas morning.  There is a parent's anticipation about the scene.  The baby is far too young to appreciate what is going on but the artist (if this is his daughter) will remember how it felt to be a parent at Christmas for the first time.  For the record here is Lily's first Christmas...

She was about three weeks old, so by this point we hadn't slept for three weeks and I was as mad as a box of frogs.  Other than that, it was magical.  Okay, this one is slightly better...

That was Lily's second Christmas, she was just over a year old and we were sleeping by that point.  I was still as mad as a box of frogs but that only lasted for another six months after this.  My sympathies go to parents at Christmas as the pressure to make your child's existence special, as special as the little girl in Hutchison's picture of a baby's first Christmas, is so intense at this time of year, that it can threaten to overwhelm all the nice stuff, the other things that should be uppermost in your mind.  The people you love and who love you, want you this Christmas, in one piece and vaguely sane. The greatest gift you can give to people is your time, your kindness and your love.

And a box of Ferrero Rocher.

Okay, so my pressie suggestion today is especially for you.  Take today off.  Take 24 hours to relax, read a book, have a snooze in front of Poirot, pour some booze over your Christmas cake, and possibly a little into yourself.  Replace words in film titles with the word 'muff'. Remember wherever you are, you're doing a marvellous job and people appreciate and love you.

Happy Christmas.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Tuesday 16th December - Winter

Honestly, I'm rather tired today.  I was woken up at midnight by an errant alarm clock and so today is brought to you on two hours sleep.  Marvellous.  Let's find a nice jolly picture to be getting along with...

Winter (1882) Francesc Masriera
Gosh, well I have to admit I admire a woman with a fluffy muff. I am somewhat known for my love of a good muff and yes, I will try and do an entire month of them next December.  Despite my love of retro clothing I have never experimented with a muff because I always thought it would be in the way, but maybe I haven't thought it through...

It is a quintessentially Victorian item of clothing which seemingly cannot be worn in any modern sense without looking vintage and quirky, not that there is anything wrong with that.  This young woman is wearing a lovely muff which she seems to have a hand stuck in.  Mind you, looking at the width of her waist, I suspect that the hand in the muff is massive.  If you heave it in from one place, it has to pop out somewhere else.  Either that or her arms are filling up her puff sleeves.

Winter Cecil Quinnell Watson
It is such a romantic accessory that makes me think of swirling snow, ice-skating and frosty breezes.  There is a hint of female freedom about it, a protection against the world to enable game young women to lead an active life in the coldest of weather.  Often, women with muffs are seen gambling about outside, skating and adventuring out in the cold.  They are attractive, fit, active, not the passive indoor creature that we associate with the Victorian woman.  Maybe there is a liberation behind the muff...

Obviously if you are venturing out in the cold, it would be wise to do so with a toasty muff.  The delightfully named 'Dainty Muff Warmer' is a ceramic bottle that you slipped in your muff before you ventured out.  I'm not sure of scale, but I'm guessing as it was ceramic and filled with water, you wouldn't want to keep it in your muff once you went outside, no matter how dainty it was.  Being warm wasn't the half of it...

This is a lovely percussion muff pistol, also dainty in size, to slip in your muff to ward off footpads and scoundrels. You could be almost constantly packing heat inside your toasty warm muff, ready to fight off anyone who deserved it.  You don't need a man!  You can skate about, and then if you get trouble you can deal with it.  That is proper liberation.  Also it strikes me that you don't need to take both hands out of the muff in order to fire the pistol, just one.  If I am going to shoot a cad, I want to keep my hand warm.

Behold the Muff of Astrakhan! No more magical words have ever been uttered. I'm sure it would be possible to buy a muff today, possibly even Primark have them as a novelty winter accessory, but you'd be hard pressed to see many women wearing them on the high street this morning.  Mind you, the range of muffs that were available in Victorian times is very impressive.  Surely, there is a muff for all!

Yikes!  Okay, maybe not for all.  I'm not sure I want to stick my hand into anything that stares at me. Really, that's just wrong.

That's better, that's a proper luxury muff, a muff of aesthetic delight. I think I would feel like the swankiest girl in town with the mad peacock muff, the muff of decadence! Maybe I should just opt for something in velvet, I do like a bit of velvet and it always looks classy.  When you google 'Victorian muff' (with the safe search on, trust me on that) you seem to be able to buy 'muff chains' (easy now) for the suspension of your muff.  I may have a go at making my own, although I'm not sure I can get hold of enough peacock feathers...

Anyway, my pressie suggestion today is this book...

Muffs and Morals by Pearl Binder, a brilliant book with an unforgettable title.  It is the history of costume and written in an informative and jolly manner, as the title would suggest.  Well out of print now, second hand copies can be bought from Amazon or Abebooks.  There is also a marvellous section on the history of beards.  What more do you require for your bed-time reading?

Talking of bed-time, I may just go and have a little snooze.

See you tomorrow...

Monday 15th December - Winter Sunshine

Well, today's been quite exciting.  We had some electrical work done on the house and I lost the internet all day.  That sound you heard was me screaming 'INTERNET! INTERNET DON'T LEAVE ME!  THINK OF BLOGVENT!'  However, it's back now and all is right in the world, so here is today's picture...

Winter Sunshine Robert Weir Allan
Ah, this is a beautiful image and reminds me of my Grandpa who was a horseman on a farm in Wiltshire. Robert Weir Allan was born in Glasgow, and studied art both there and in Paris before settling in London.  He toured the world, visiting countries such as Egypt, India and Japan, and his watercolours of far-off places can be seen in many auction catalogues.  This picture is housed in North Lanarkshire Museum who carry many images of traditional industries of Scotland together with social history.

I adore the purity of the colour in this work, clear and crisp.  The white, green and blue are wonderfully striking, and it is a unexpectedly positive image of rural life, as opposed to the Clausen I posted a couple of days back.  This chap and his shire horses are getting on with their work on a sparklingly good day and despite it being winter, he has had to roll his sleeves up.  You get a sense that all is well in his world.  He has two fine looking horses, a good plough and a clear sky.  It makes a lovely change to see a rural picture where you don't suspect that everyone will starve the moment you take your eye off them. That's the kind of spirit we need approaching Christmas and the cold months ahead. Good-o.

My recommendation for pressie today is one of the best books I read this year.  The Lost Pre-Raphaelite is a wonderful story told in an engaging way and Nigel Daly is easily the most delightful storyteller you'll ever spend time with.  It is a combination of a biography of Bateman coupled with the adventure Nigel went on to uncover the complicated and heartbreaking truth behind a lesser known Pre-Raphaelite artist.  Read it and enjoy!

My review of this marvellous book is here, together with links to buy it.

Review: Anarchy & Beauty

Second exhibition of Saturday was Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, 1860-1960.  I attended the massive William Morris exhibition at the V&A years ago and remembered getting gorgeousness-fatigue about halfway round so was looking forward to seeing how the National Portrait Gallery were going to interpret Morris.  The result was fascinating…

While attending the exhibition at Leighton House, I must confess I didn’t bother reading the room notes, or using the audio guide much.  You knew what you were dealing with, there was no need for a narrative as such, it wasn’t that sort of exhibition.  It was an exhibition in the literal sense.  Anarchy & Beauty however is a story, a narrative of how one man’s vision influenced a century. 

First clue is the date range given in the exhibition title.  Those are not Morris’ life dates but the reach of his thought and influence.  It is unusual to consider an exhibition of someone’s vision beyond that of their own work.  As you would expect, the National Portrait Gallery displayed many and varied portraits of the people involved in their narrative, from photographs to painted self-portraits, alongside the objects which also acted as a portrait of sorts.  As soon as you enter the exhibition, for example, you can see the satchel that Morris carried to political meetings, a battered canvas bag that contained so much of his writings. Such a personal object was displayed alongside his willow wallpaper, as if to show you both the personal and public sides of the same man.

Gill's Garden Roller
 The clue is in the title and it is a very beautiful exhibition, from the Prioress’ Tale Wardrobe to Eric Gill’s garden roller.  It is about the appreciation of the creation of beauty, for the craftsman and for the world.  It is impossible not to be astonished in front of any of the Kelmscott books, they are works of magnificence on a massive scale. The way the exhibition shows the extension of Morris’ views beyond his life, through two world wars and on to the Festival of Britain in 1951 made me consider how we see craft, design and the associated philosophy today.
Morris soap, for the filthy anarchist in your life...
 William Morris is a difficult man to talk about in many ways because there is so much to say.  This exhibition is an exciting way of playing ‘tag’over a century with his influence and showing how relevant he was in an era that espoused antipathy towards Victorianism, while secretly using the philosophy of the most Victorian man in town. The counterpointing Morris with Gill or Terence Conran highlights how important people of vision are in our society and how they permeate everything from the font that our national broadcaster uses to the shape of chairs in our houses.  As we were going into the exhibition, Miss Holman questioned the use of the word ‘anarchy’ and I think that is an interesting point.  Art historians know that Morris was a revolutionary but nowadays Strawberry Thief is wrapped around a bar of soap to give to your granny.  The extension of the time-frame to the 1960s did nothing to help this as all the amazing and revolutionary design and thought is now taken in our stride because it is right and fits our lives to improvement.  

William Morris (1870) G F Watts
If I have a complaint (which is borne out of the excellence of the exhibition in making me think far too much about everything) it is that it did not address the position of craft for the later time period.  Craft has had a bit of a renaissance of late, but it is viewed as a natural byproduct of the recession and the uncertainty of future and like a luxury of the middle class.  Handmaking things is seen as a retro act, something of a pretense and most decidedly feminine (and a folly for it).  I make stuff, I was raised by parents who made stuff as a default, and a question I am asked a lot is why bother, when I can buy it? I’m sure Morris would have had my back when I explain the beauty of hand-craft, that an object I make is imbued with time and love that money cannot buy.  Looking at Morris’ sketches, De Morgan’s pots and Lucian Day’s fabric, all so familiar and commonplace today, it is good to remember that they existed as thought, then were crafted, to make the world a beautiful place. Anyone who wants to make the world a more beautiful place is definitely worth a visit.

For further information on the exhibition, see here.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Sunday 14th December - Sea-Coopering

I've just built my daughter's new bed and am having a well deserved sit-down before getting the Christmas tree built and dressed.  It's all go this morning, but I'm not as busy as these chaps...

Sea-Coopering, Fishing Up Christmas Cheer (1894) Stuart Henry Bell
I had to look up what 'sea-coopering' was and even now I'm not entirely clear. Coopering obviously refers to barrels and I was left wondering exactly how you catch a fish in a barrel.  However, I am beginning to suspect that's not fish in that barrel but booze.  Although barrels were used on ships to store fish, I think what these gentleman are 'fishing up' is spirits and tobacco.  Although this seems quite a jolly image, it is smuggling which is not so jolly.  I'm sure this is all perfectly harmless though and they are just getting some brandy for their Christmas dinner and not to sell.  Trusting soul, aren't I?

It reminded me of a story from my home town, Devizes in Wiltshire.  If you were born in Devizes, you were called a 'Moonraker' after a little incident with smuggling. Somewhen in the 18th century, smugglers were bringing barrels of brandy through Wiltshire when they were caught up with by the Excise men in Devizes in the middle of Wiltshire (although other places in Wilthsire claim the story too).  There is a giant pond in the town called the Cramer, so the smugglers dumped the barrels in there.  When they tried to retrieve it later, the Excise men caught them.  The smugglers were holding giant rakes (which they were using to fish out the barrels) and when asked what they were doing they replied they were raking the round cheese off the water (the reflection of the moon).  The Excise men assumed the smugglers were harmless idiots and went away, leaving the smugglers to get their brandy back and scarper.

Having spent some time in Jamaica Inn this summer, the history of smuggling is very unpleasant indeed and not the cuddly, 'Robin Hood' stuff stories and paintings tell us, but you can't help but smile at the fishermen catching brandy instead of fish for Christmas.

Today's present is the graphic novel Heaven and the Dead City by Raine Szramski.  You will know Raine from her splendid drawings of the Pre-Raphaelites (which you can see on here), and she was kind enough to let me use her drawing of Fanny Cornforth in StunnerHeaven and the Dead City is a Victorian adventure of magic and witches, and a cracking good read.  Raine is a brillint writer as well as being a fabulous artist and her work is always entertaining.  I thoroughly recommend!

See you tomorrow for another review and another blogvent. 
No peace for the wicked!

Review: A Victorian Obsession

Yesterday, we had the rather special pleasure of attending two exhibitions up in London.  The first was 'A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection at Leighton House Museum'...

Leighton House Museum is the former home of Frederic Leighton, eminent Victorian artist, who painted luscious masterpieces such as Flaming June.  His house is a jewel, a deep, exotic blue palace, worth visiting just to experience its beauty, but just at the moment they have a stunning collection of art on show.  'A Victorian Obsession' shows a collections of wonderful works, owned by the Mexican collector Juan Antonio Pérez Simón.  This is a cross-section of extraordinary Victorian masterpieces, with paintings from Moore, Millais, Waterhouse, Alma Tadema and Leighton all on display.  It has to be seen to be believed.

In the Golden Days (1907) John Melhuish Strudwick
Covering eight different spaces, there is such a range of art it would be impossible not to find something to make you swoon. Together with the big names are art works by lesser known artists such as Strudwick, whose glowing richness leaves you entranced.  Each of his works has such delicacy in the features of the women and wonderful detail in their surroundings.  We loved In the Golden Days, an image from Tennyson, where Guinevere indulges in the innocent pastime of music before it all went wrong.  The room guide says the woman standing is the queen, but we were struck by the profile of the woman with the instrument.  Her face seemed so particular, so individual.

The Crystal Ball (1902) John William Waterhouse
The joy of seeing the works in Leighton's House was that you felt you were seeing them in a natural environment.  It's not that I have anything against seeing pictures in museums (Heavens to Betsy! I spend enough time doing just that) but there was an added pleasure of wandering around a beautiful house with these incredible pictures on the wall, as if you were a guest at a party where the host had seductive levels of good taste. I have to say seeing The Crystal Ball made us sigh and swoon a lot.  Look at the Princess Leia hair!  Goodness, she is too beautiful.

Crenaia, the Nymph of the Dargle (1880) Frederic Leighton
Poster girl for the British leg of this exhibition's tour is very appropriately Dorothy Dene, actress, model and possible lover of Leighton.  Her face graces many of the Leighton paintings that are featured in the exhibition, instantly recognisable with her head of little curls and her strong features.  Crenaia is a nymph, risen from the waters of the River Dargle which ran across the estate of Lord Powerscourt, the painting's first owner.  Her half-neglected drapery echoes the white of the water behind her and her skin glows magically.  If Leighton did indeed love Miss Dene, you can definitely see why.  She is utterly beautiful, I quite fancy her myself.

The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) Lawrence Alma-Tadema
I've been to some rum parties in my time, but this has to top them all. The bonkers young emperor, Heliogabalus, thought it would be a good idea to enliven his party by drowning half the guests under a tsunami of rose petals.  I usually just serve iced gems.  It is a massive, vivid painting combining extraordinary beauty with cruelty and read from left to right shows you the hurricane of petals falling on the guests.  They are covered by this wonderful flurry, some laughing, some vainly trying to protect themselves, but then on the right a woman meets our gaze.  She does not look happy.  Her companion seems to have noticed the deranged look on the face of their host as he is framed by a tumble of petals.  Time to get your coat, Love.

It is a very famous picture and very beautiful so it would be easy to brush off the horror of the image.  I was astonished by the added extra that greeted you as you entered the room.  The smell of roses assaults you as you approach the work.  It is at first lovely but it becomes cloying and inescapable as the room is sealed off from the rest of the house.  You are in a room with this massive, glowing canvas and you can smell the roses that are killing them. It is as extraordinary as it is disturbing.  I now want more smell-o-vision exhibitions.

'But, O, for the touch of a vanished hand...' (1896) Charles Perugini  
There is a completeness in seeing a collection of exceptional Victorian art in the home of an exceptional Victorian artist.  Leighton House, not the biggest venue in the capital, has created an immersive, seductive experience from this touring exhibition.  It seems both a natural and perfect setting to see the pictures and the Rose room is an amazing and unusual experience worthy of the entrance fee alone.  If you have time and opportunity, see this show, it is wonderful.

For further information, see here.