Picture: Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder: Still Life with Flowers in a Wan Li Vase (1609-1610)

Unsurprisingly, this little known picture is being used by the National Gallery to promote its exhibition “Dutch Flowers”, on until August 2016. This exhibition features examples from over 200 years of Dutch flower painting, quite a few of which are by Bosschaert and other members of his family. But this picture is important in itself, as it features everything a Dutch merchant of the period would aspire to possess – all the status symbols of the well to do. As such, it is a key document in seventeenth century Dutch social history.

A long standing motif of Holland, the tulips Bosschaert has here portrayed would be recognisable to any contemporary as the most desirable of all tulips at that time. It was the striped petals which set the Semper Augustus tulip apart from its plainer cousins, and the desire for them became so great that it created the first speculative financial boom. Known as Tulipomania, at its height life savings were exchanged for a single bulb in the hope that the flowers would feature the distinctive variegation of the Semper Augustus, and fortunes would be made for successful propagation.

Years later it was discovered that the patterning was caused when the bulb was infected by a virus which, in turn, weakened the plant and often rendered propagation unsuccessful, making it commercially unviable. When the tulip bubble did finally burst in the late 1630s, it did untold damage to the Dutch economy and many families lost everything. Sadly, as we have seen with the dotcom boom and the subprime bubble, history has an alarming tendency to repeat itself. I am told that a film is being made about the Tulipomania, which of course I will go and see, partly because I love tulips but also because it’s a cracking story.

What helped to rescue the Dutch economy is also featured in the painting – blue and white porcelain. The Chinese had, centuries earlier, perfected the creation of highly decorated porcelain which they quickly exported once trade links with Europe were opened in the early 1600s. However, after a diplomatic row the Chinese temporarily ended all trade with Europe, leaving the Dutch (and many other countries) with a market thirsty for a commodity that they could not provide. The potteries at Delft quickly developed their own distinctive take on the highly popular blue and white designs, which proved equally popular and soon gained imitators of their own, most notably Spode in England. The Chinese patterns, however, were always the most coveted and remain popular to this day. A genuine Chinese vase was a prize worth having.

Less obvious, perhaps, are the shells sitting in the foreground, representing the growth in Dutch colonialism. The shells are from both the East and West Indies, showing the spread of European colonial influence at that time. Shells were often prominent features of “wunderkammer” (cabinets of wonders) which many wealthy or intellectual people developed to display the variety of their collections. Shells were natural structures, highly coloured and often iridescent, which came in a large variety of shapes and were virtually impossible to reproduce, so became highly collectible. It even had its own little “mania”, nowhere near as large or as damaging as that for tulips, but certainly any collector worth the name had at least one fine specimen in his collection.

So there you have it – a snapshot of social aspirations in seventeenth century Holland in one painting. I’m delighted it’s being seen by more people; it’s one of my favourites.

The High Cost of Retirement

Had a very enlightening meeting with a financial adviser recently. Usually, when someone starts talking statistics, figures, graphs and charts, my eyes glaze over and I get this funny droning noise in my head. Fortunately, my IFA (independent financial adviser) is well used to this by now, so he draws me pictures and puts it all in terms I can understand. At the end of today’s meeting, I actually felt like I understood something!

What I’m trying to do, without going into too much gruesome detail, is to work out (a) if I’ll be able to afford to retire in twenty years’ time and (b) if not, when I’ll be able to retire. And so far, things are looking rather good. I may actually be able to afford to retire on time if I promise not to live on anything other than bread and water and sell everything apart from my two favourite books and a pair of moth-eaten slippers.

Yeah, retirement is going to be bloody expensive.

You wouldn’t think it’s something I’d be considering when I’m not yet fifty, but in fact, it’s something I started looking at twenty years ago… and I should have done it five years earlier then. It’s really never too early to start thinking about retirement, unless you’re born into such wealth and luxury a day’s work is something someone else does for you (I’m merrily assuming that anyone reading this does not fall into that category). It’s only going to get worse and quite honestly, I fully intend to have a decent retirement – so I need to start making sure I can pay for it now.

The point I’m making is that I thought I was well organised in this sort of thing – and I’m not. It’s still going to be very much touch and go whether I will be able to retire before I’m 70 and still be able to survive slightly better than hand to mouth – and I don’t have particularly expensive tastes. For my daughter and people in their twenties and thirties, I implore you, get it sorted out yourselves as soon as possible as there is no guarantee that the State will provide for you (or if they do, that you’ll be able to survive on it). I feel like I’ve spent my adult life trying to encourage women to be increasingly self-reliant and this is an extension of that. Sort out your pensions now, ladies, so that when the time comes, you can show the young ‘uns how to live it up – without having to worry about getting up in the morning.

Will Somebody Please Sort This Mess Out?

I have tried very hard to avoid getting political on my blog but over the weekend, I caught a snippet of news that changed my mind on this point.

Today, for the first time in the history of the National Health Service, junior doctors will strike without providing any emergency cover. In previous episodes of industrial action, A&E services have been provided, but from now on, they will not. This is absolutely unheard of and is not a matter that the Government can ignore, I’m afraid. Here’s why.

When transport workers strike, it’s a nuisance but alternative arrangements are made and people work around it. When post office workers strike, it’s a nuisance, but alternative arrangements are made and people work around it. When civil servants strike, I doubt very much many people actually notice, because life seems to go on as normal for most people (sorry about that, but it’s true).

However, junior doctors have a very specific skill set and when they strike, people notice. With the best will in the world, a nurse or paramedic simply cannot cover a junior doctor – they have not had the same training and do not have the same skills. I think even they would admit that, and I hope I am not doing them a disservice by saying so. If emergency care is not provided, there is a very high probability that people could die.

So great is this probability that a cross-party group of MPs, together with the Royal College of Surgeons, made proposals to be put to both sides in an attempt to at least avert the possibility of losing emergency medical cover. The Department of Health dismissed these proposals as “ill-informed” and “publicity seeking”. Perhaps they were, but at least someone seems to care enough to ensure that people do not die unnecessarily because either side refuses to get round a table and talk.

I do not want to come down on one side or the other in this argument – I am not a doctor, nor am I a government minister. However, I do feel very strongly that putting people’s lives at risk for political point scoring is a move too far. If the government and junior doctors do not wish to discuss the imposition of contracts, so be it. At least each side should be brave enough to consider proposals by others without dismissing them out of hand before they’ve been explored.

I just hope nobody dies over the next 48 hours. I really wouldn’t want that on my conscience.

Does It Matter Who Appears on a Bank Note?

I have to be honest and admit that I don’t really look at my money very often. It disappears into the Twilight Zone that is my purse and reappears when I least expect it. And except when I’m calculating whether I can justify yet another spree on Amazon, I very rarely think about it. The recent announcement that JMW Turner is going to be the “figurehead” on the new £20 note did get me thinking, however – about the nature of coinage and authority.

Neil MacGregor, in his masterful History of the World in 100 Objects (a book I have read and re-read a number of times since its publication) points out that in ancient times, coinage was a suitably quick and efficient method of stamping a new ruler’s authority upon the populace. Think about it; the people use coins for trade, and on each one is stamped the head of the ruler. If the head changes, they know that the ruler has changed. Deceptively simple and because it’s so pervasive, it’s accepted with little argument. Even today, nothing has changed. Coins, bank notes and stamps all have the head of the reigning monarch on them (which, as Elizabeth II has demonstrated, can change over time as the monarch ages). So in that respect, this is a question of grave importance.

But Turner is sharing a bank note with the monarch, and I suppose the question is whether or not his inclusion says something about his status in the cultural hierarchy. I think it’s absolutely crucial. If someone (for example, Jane Austen – remember all that fuss about her appearing on a £10 note?) is worthy enough to appear on a bank note, then they have reached a position where they are suitable for all, good examples of national personality and role models for the wife and servant (to paraphrase the judge in the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial). Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale, Edward Elgar, Charles Darwin and Adam Smith have all appeared, or currently appear, on UK bank notes and all represent ideals that could be considered both British and upright. It’s a strangely British idea, I think, but I get an echo of a colonialist empire that just won’t let go.

I believe that it matters greatly who appears on a bank note, because while they remain predominantly white, middle class and male, they are never going to be a true representation of British society. When I get a Gurkha nurse, a Sikh warrior or Jamaican rasta on my tenner, then I’ll say society’s integrated – but until then, it’s Little England all the way.

Shakespeare 400 – My Favourite Plays

On April 23, William Shakespeare would have been dead 400 years (he would have been 452 years old this year as well, having the (mis)fortune to die on his birthday). Not that I need an excuse or anything, but I thought it was a pretty good opportunity for me to think about which of his plays I like and why. It you know me at all, some of these will be pretty obvious; but hopefully some will be a bit more surprising. I really don’t get on with the idea that I’m predictable!

As I have posted on here previously, Macbeth has always been a favourite play, featuring as it does witches, betrayal, ghosts and a fair bit of quotable text. Strangely, though, I’ve never seen it performed and in retrospect I think that’s just as well. It would never live up to my imaginary version in its full Gothic glory.

I also like King Lear, which I really must re-read again. It’s a surprisingly human play, despite its darkness, insanity and outrageously cruel behaviour – but families are strange things and when looked at in that context, it can often appear terribly believable.

Othello is another startlingly human play dealing with difficult subjects, the most obvious of which is blatant racism. It’s reading works like this where you can see Shakespeare pushing at boundaries which must have existed even then. Othello may be black, but he is never portrayed as anything other than a human, who has succeeded through merit and is brought down by another’s jealousy and hatred. Incredibly ahead of its time and remains worth reading in this day and age.

Of the history plays, I love Henry V; I always have and it was the first Shakespeare I ever saw staged. It really brought home to me the responsibilities of leadership, although it does gloss over a few of Henry V’s less glamorous moments. Besides which, Agincourt was a bloodbath by any description. But the speeches are wonderful and this is the one play I almost always read on April 23, being St George’s Day and all.

I also like Richard II. In the National Gallery is a small hinged wooden cabinet called the Wilton Diptych, which was made for Richard II as he travelled round the country to enable him to continue his devotions in private (bear in mind that at that time, society was much more religious than it is now). I’m fairly convinced that Shakespeare must have seen the Wilton Diptych a number of times, because the imagery is reflected in the text – from “this sceptr’d isle” right through to the White Hart. I just feel that this play resonates with early English history to a degree that the others don’t.

Mind you, looking at the history plays, Shakespeare clearly believed that the Plantagenet monarchs were, as today’s tabloids might put it, a right royal soap opera.

I freely admit I like the comedies least of all, having been made to read The Tempest for A level and coming away with no idea of what was going on. Even watching Forbidden Planet years later, based as it was on that play, didn’t help. I’m assuming the robot was meant to be Ariel… My favourite of these is easily A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it took Neil Gaiman to convert me to that one.

It’s the Roman plays that I find most interesting; Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra all have soft spots in my Bardic heart. But my favourite of all is Coriolanus. Why? Because I noticed how Shakespeare lifted entire chunks of the story from Plutarch; how Volumnia is another of his strong female characters but much less popular than Lady Macbeth or Queen Gertrude; and how the lessons of the Roman empire can still apply to more recent history. The filmed version, starring Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler transferred the story to the Balkans in the 1990s, and it worked brilliantly. I never got round to seeing the Tom Hiddleston version at the Donmar; perhaps he can be persuaded to do it again on film. I’m told it was very good.

How Much Would You Pay For A Mushroom?

Is £2,000 a pound a little too much? How about £7,000 a pound? Have your eyes stopped watering yet?

As you may have guessed, I’m not pricing up any old mushrooms; these are market rates for Alba white truffles, generally considered by those who know to be the best in the world. I’m not a huge fungus fan, to be honest, so I can’t quite work out what makes them so special – but it’s an awful lot of money to pay for a mushroom.

There are a few different varieties of truffle available, some considerably more expensive than others but all pricier than your average shiitake. White truffles are only found in Piedmont and are considered the most valuable and has reached record breaking levels; the highest price for a single white truffle is £165,000 for a 1.5kg specimen (3.3lbs if you’re old fashioned like me) – so that equates to around £50,000 a pound. It’s a lot of money for something that’s barely going to last a fortnight.

There is also the black Perigord truffle which is said to be the next most valuable species and is as aromatic and flavourful as its paler cousin. It has also recently been infused with vodka to create a truffle vodka, used in cocktails and cooking for a distinctive flavour. Unfortunately, I don’t have any prices for black truffles, but I’d say about two thirds of that of a white truffle would be a decent guess.

There are also such things as the Oregon white truffle, a kind of commercial “poor man’s” truffle, grown in the Pacific North West of the United States. It is not the same fungus as that of an Alba white truffle and prices reflect this, with the truffles selling for around £75 a pound. Still a lot, but nowhere near as expensive as the European varieties.

The thing that dazzles me is that such large sums of money are spent on something you can’t keep. Unlike wine, which you could lay down for a few years, or artworks, which never go off, truffles have a very distinct life span. I am told that they can be preserved, but surely that would affect their flavour, and thereby reduce their value? I’m not sure. I just think it is another example of money speaking louder than good sense.

Art Crime Case Study – Who Owns My Banksy?

It is increasingly the case these days that cleverly placed, intelligent, attractive and sometimes politically pertinent street art appears on the side of buildings throughout the world; most of these are anonymous, but some street artists, such as Banksy, have become household names and their works have in turn developed a great deal of cachet. But who owns the artwork – and if it’s on the side of a building, can it be sold at all?

Some people have got round this by arguing that the owner of the building owns the artwork on it, and if they choose to remove the brickwork/plasterwork on which the art is situated in order to transport it, they are entitled to do so. A recent case in the High Court, The Creative Foundation vs. Dreamland Leisure Limited, dealt with a similar point in relation to the Banksy mural called “Art Buff”.

art buff

The question the Court had to consider was a narrow one and related primarily to the ownership of the wall on which the mural was painted; the Court at all times considered that the copyright in the image belonged to Banksy. Dreamland were the tenants of the building on which Art Buff was painted, and the Foundation were the landlords. In order to protect the mural, Dreamland arranged to cover it with Perspex but, having been advised that it could be worth a substantial amount of money if it were sold, arranged to have that section of the wall removed in readiness for the artwork to be sold. The landlords sued, arguing that Dreamland were not entitled to damage the fabric of the building despite it being part of their lease, and further that the painting was technically the property of the landlord and therefore Dreamland were not entitled to sell it. After a considerable amount of deliberation, the Court found in the Foundation’s favour, and the artwork was returned to them; they intend to put it on display in Kent at an early opportunity.

But this case raised the question of who actually OWNED the Banksy. Although it seems at first glance that the question has been answered in favour of the owner of the building on which the artwork is found, there are possible exceptions. For example, Banksy famously left a mural on the contentious wall in Israel; presumably, as the owners of the wall, the artwork would belong to the State of Israel, but as the artwork was on the Palestinian side, as long as it’s not removed, can they protect their asset?

The reason why I ask is this – all walls have two sides and most property agreements allow that one side belongs to the tenant and one side to the landlord. What I mean is this – my landlord owns my house, but I’m allowed to decorate the inside how I like as long as I make good* before I leave.** But as long as I am there and not interfering with the landlord’s structure, basically, I can put what I like on the walls. So if I have a Banksy on the inside, on MY SIDE of the wall, as long as I don’t knock the wall down, the landlord doesn’t have to know. Right?


I’d be well advised to declare my Banksy as soon as it appeared, because I wouldn’t be allowed to take it with me when I move – as removing it would cause damage to the landlord’s structure and would then be considered by the Court to be their property. That way, the landlord and I could come to some arrangement whereby I could be compensated for the loss of my asset; perhaps a percentage of the income the landlord would get from exhibiting it.*** But if the mural is on the outside of the wall, open to the elements, I really have no claim to it at all.

So going back to the question of the Banksy on the Israeli border wall – what are the chances of the landlords and tenants ever sorting out that ownership question? Personally I would err on the side of the Israelis; and frankly I’m amazed that they haven’t already removed that panel and stuck it in a museum somewhere for wealthy people to gawp at. So much more convenient doing things that way than having to travel to the middle of Gaza.

* “Making good” usually means cleaning, repairing any minor damage and ensuring that the house is in good order. If you have decorated the inside without telling your landlord first, you may be required to redecorate to the landlord’s tastes when you leave.

** If you own a flat in a building which is owned by a third party, the same principles apply although making good is entirely up to you. Your lease will dictate what parts you own and are responsible for.

*** It’s just a thought, if I ever invite Banksy round for tea and get him to leave a calling card in the bathroom or something.