A Circle of Sisters by Judith Flanders

I was absolutely convinced that I’ve read other books by Judith Flanders before, and on checking my shelves, I realised that I have – I own copies of The Victorian House and The Invention of Murder, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. This is, in fact, her first book although from the looks of my copy, it’s been reissued recently. And in spite of being frequently irritated by her circle of characters, I’m enjoying this one rather a lot as well.
The sisters discussed are the Macdonald sisters, of which there were five and of which five, four played a part in history by being wives or mothers of much more famous men. Alice, the eldest, was Rudyard Kipling’s mother; Georgiana married the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones; Agatha was the wife of the President of the Royal Academy, Edward Poynter; and Louisa’s eldest son was the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. The fifth sister, Edie, never married and lived with the Baldwin family as unpaid housekeeper and governess.
It is a fascinating history covering a period with which I am fascinated anyway. I like the Pre-Raphaelites – although I like the Arts & Crafts movement more – and I enjoy political history. I’m learning to see the more radical side of Rudyard Kipling (apparently there was one) and how the British Empire permeated life during that time. It’s just that all the people in it are AWFUL. I think the only one I actually liked buggered off to America in Chapter 4 and never came back, the sensible chap. This isn’t the fault of the historian, because the book is exceptionally well written and really interesting; this is what the late Victorians were like and it’s striking just how different one’s outlook is these days.
None of these sisters could be called feminists and all of them were at least partially prepared to give up potentially promising artistic or literary careers to support their husbands and care for their families. None of them seemed to think it unusual to dump their children on friends or relatives for extended periods of time while Mummy went to care for Daddy while he worked in India. None of them seemed to think it unusual for their husbands to have affairs left, right and centre while they stayed at home. It’s hardly surprising that two of the sisters (Agatha and Louisa) essentially spent their entire married lives invalided with “nervous disorders” – what else was expected of them if they couldn’t achieve their own potential?
One interesting aside which I had missed previously is that the murderess, Madeline Smith, was employed by William Morris & Co as an embroiderer after she left Scotland under an assumed name. It was just a little throwaway fact I found tucked into a section about the early years of the Burne-Jones’ marriage. The book is full of little treats like this. It’s just a shame that the rest of the cast can’t be a little more entertaining.

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Jane Austen Will Never Be The Same Again

It was, of course, my own fault entirely for picking up the book in the library. In reading Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen: The Secret Radical, I have now forever changed my view of her novels. They may look romantic and flimsy but underneath the curtseying and good manners, there are some real revelations.

I had known for a long time that Mansfield Park had one foot in the slavery question, as it is quite apparent that Sir Thomas Bertram, with his estate in Antigua, has made money probably from sugarcane and the slaves that worked the plantation for him. However, I hadn’t realised the feminist undertones of many of Austen’s novels (which I shall very briefly explore later, because I want you to go and read this book – and then read all of her novels again) and I now admire Austen’s skills as a writer much more than I did before.

I must say at the outset, though, that it is very important to read her books with this in mind, rather than simply watch an adaptation, good as it may be; every scriptwriter makes changes to the original text to suit running time, budget restrictions or whatever message the director wants to put forward. So please, go back to the novels and start from the beginning.

Northanger Abbey, possibly Jane’s first novel, was never intended for publication and as a result it wasn’t published until her death. It has made dating it a little problematic, but I was surprised to learn that Gothic novels didn’t really have very much to do with the plot. They were, however, a very clever disguise to explore infant and maternal mortality in childbirth – and Jane’s method would have been seen through by the majority of her contemporary (female) readers. I wasn’t convinced by the argument at first, I admit, but I went back to the novel and there it was – clear as day. After that, I stopped arguing and decided to learn.

Sense and Sensibility deals with the unfairness of primogeniture, but also raises questions about how trustworthy the male characters in the book are – they certainly don’t seem to have the best interests of the female characters to heart. Pride and Prejudice is a class struggle, but also mentions in passing some of the less romantic aspects of living in a garrison town at a time of unrest and upheaval. As I’ve already said, Mansfield Park has undertones of slavery, while Emma deals with enclosures and the food shortages it caused, while Persuasion explores the growing split between science and religion just before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species and caused absolute mayhem.

I was quite swept away by this book. If you like Jane Austen’s novels you really must read it, Ms Kelly adds so much depth and information to the novels which, quite honestly, I hadn’t realised was there. It did encourage me to go back to the original texts, which is never a bad thing, and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a fantastic read.

A New Hobby

After some badgering by the husband, I’ve got myself a new hobby – as apparently knitting, reading and writing this blog don’t seem to count. Although there was some misunderstanding when I told him what I’d taken up and he wondered where I’d hidden the special equipment – it seems he thought I’d send ENGRAVING and wondered when I’d discovered my artistic talent.

My new hobby is actually GRAVING and is nothing more suspect than looking at old graves, of which the South of England has more than a fair few. I’ve always liked cemeteries anyway so it seemed a natural progression to actually look at some of the headstones and make notes of the graves which caught my attention, either because of the epitaph, the architecture or the occupant.

However, there are a few rules to graving, mostly due to the fact that it’s good manners to behave in a certain way when consorting with the dead, so I set out here a very basic etiquette for any would-be gravers:

1. Please respect where you are. I know this is common sense, but it’s surprising how many people just seem to ignore it. This means don’t sit on the grave (dancing on them is completely verboten, no matter how much you hated the deceased), don’t let children or animals run riot around the graveyard and do not damage the headstone. These are people’s relatives; I’m not sure I would be entirely happy if someone came along and wrote “Kevin Loves Doreen” in permanent marker on my gran’s headstone – so don’t do it. Also, no loud music and no parties. Really, what kind of people would do that in a graveyard?

2. Alongside this goes please respect other people’s beliefs. What I mean is that if you visit a Jewish or Muslim cemetery and you are not of the faith, don’t assume that your ideas are better than theirs. Equally, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, keep that one to yourself as well, especially if a nearby grave happens to have visitors. Most graves are also in churchyards, but don’t let that put you off if you are not of the faith – you won’t burst into flames, I promise you.

3. Do not take rubbings of any gravestone without permission. Keep a notebook and pen and write it down, or in this day and age of mobile telephones, take a photograph. Equally, unless you are personally acquainted with the deceased, don’t leave flowers or any kind of memento – and whatever you do, no matter how dead the flowers are, do not remove anything left by anyone else. It’s not for you to do.

4. Do not attempt to look for a grave if there is a funeral taking place nearby. That’s just rude.

Otherwise – enjoy a nice day out, take some sandwiches (clear up after yourself, obviously) and a thermos and spend a lovely peaceful day outdoors. Makes a change from staring at a screen, doesn’t it?

I Seem to be Obsessed With Frida Kahlo

I read a biography of Frida Kahlo many years ago, and all I really remember about it was that all of her paintings were self-portraits, which I found a bit irritating, and consequently I’ve never really considered myself much of a Fridaphile. Having said that – and much to my amusement, I suppose – I find myself quite besotted with the current exhibition of her possessions that is currently on at the Victoria and Albert Museum and which, unsurprisingly, I have seen. I just can’t get enough of it; I have reread that biography from all those years ago, and I think I probably enjoyed it more this time.
Frida has become an icon for a wide range of issues; everything from disabled rights to lesbian activism, indigenous peoples and workers of handicrafts; and with good reason, because in her way she championed all of these causes at some point in her life. She chose to wear traditional Mexican dress at all times, she famously had a monobrow and hairy upper lip, had male and female lovers despite being married to the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and was a lifelong socialist even though she was arguably a member of the bourgeoisie. Frida has always been contradictory which is one of the reasons why she has remained so popular; if you look hard enough, you will find something meaningful to you in her art or her life.
Of course, she was decades ahead of her time, and it’s often suggested in the media that her paintings are the “selfies of their time”. I think this is missing the point slightly – there is much more to a painting than a selfie taken to commemorate seeing some Z-list celebrity eating lunch or to prove to your besties that you really were at this hip and trendy place only three other people have heard of. It’s also been argued in similar sources that she promoted the boho look through her use of traditional dress, but I think that argument is specious and, quite honestly, a bit offensive.
This then begs the question of what Frida means to me, and I’m afraid that the best I can offer to answer that question is that she was individual and stuck to it. She found the lifestyle she was comfortable with and didn’t compromise it for anyone. I think I admire that more than anything. Certainly, I find her pictures sometimes hard to look at and, en masse, a bit on the monotonous side, but that’s because I’m not really very good with portraits. Perhaps I need to look beyond the need to immortalise a likeness to see what the artist really is saying. Who knows – perhaps I might find the root cause of my obsession with Frida after all.

Seeing Red

I don’t go to the theatre much, usually because my days start so early I’d probably be asleep before the interval. I’d heard so much about John Logan’s play “Red”, currently on at the Wyndham Theatre, that I decided I was going to take the day off and make the effort. Unfortunately, my cunning plan came to nowt because the show’s been sold out for some time, probably due to Alfred Molina’s cracking performance as Mark Rothko. Consequently, I have had to rely on the text of the play and my imagination, after (yet again) my library came up trumps with a copy.
“Red” is set in Mark Rothko’s studio during the late 1950s, at a time when he had been commissioned to paint four murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant of the Seagram Building. The play deals with Rothko’s reaction to the commission, his philosophy of art, his worries about his legacy and the relationship between the artist, his work and the viewing public. The cast is just two – Rothko and his assistant Ken, who is a fictional character but serves as something of a Greek chorus, expressing the opinions of Society and History and prodding the artist’s self-analysis.
If I’m making this sound unnecessarily complex, I do apologise, but there’s quite a lot to the play and I’ve found it really fascinating. One of the things that struck me was how much Rothko believed in his own importance as an artist; in fact, his justification for declining the commission was that his art would be reduced to mere wallpaper, background noise, rather than engaging the full attention of the viewer, which was not how he wanted his life’s work to be perceived. In the play, and probably also in life, Rothko was highly critical of other, newer, artists, such as Andy Warhol, who were just making their names at a time when he perceived that his own reputation was in decline. This has allowed the play to explore changing fashions in art and, in particular, the fluctuating popularity of any given artist at any given time.
It is a wonderful play, and I’ve found an awful lot in it – it will definitely repay multiple reading – and I think is a must-see for anyone interested in art or art history. It’s made me realise that there is an awful lot more to modern art than just blocks or splashes of colour – even the choice of colour can be loaded with meaning. As Rothko says at one point in the play: “I’m not here to paint pretty pictures. I’m here to make you think.” This play certainly manages to do that.

Spotting a Forgery Isn’t As Easy As It Looks

I read a very strange article in the paper recently about an art forger who was so good, he sometimes fooled himself. There’s a novel in there somewhere, I’m sure. I must admit I would have had trouble telling the difference between his paintings and the originals if the newsprint was anything to go by, although it wouldn’t have surprised me at all to find that they’d labelled the photographs wrong. But then this made me think about how one can actually tell if a painting is a forgery or the original, authentic article.

There are a number of scientific tests which can be conducted on the pigments used in the painting which can give away a painting’s age. This, unfortunately, was how Steve Martin discovered that a number of his paintings were – shall we say – not originals, as the white pigment used hadn’t been invented at the time the painting was meant to have been originally done. Some very good forgers go to great lengths to ensure that they don’t get caught out by this, although slip ups do happen and as time has gone on, it’s become increasingly easy to test pigments in a non-invasive way and the tests have become increasingly sensitive.

As anyone who has watched BBC’s Fake or Fortune will know, it’s not always down to the scientists for a painting to be declared a forgery. Almost all well-known artists have what is called a catalogue raisonne, which is the definitive list of genuine works by that artist. If a painting doesn’t appear on the catalogue raisonne, there is a very high possibility it is not by the artist; although occasionally, lost paintings are discovered if there is reference to them in other sources or draft sketches which have been acknowledged by the artist, for example. Ultimately, it is up to the Estate of the artist (if they have died in the last 150 years or so) or whoever retains and maintains the catalogue raisonne to judge if a painting is not a fake – and if they say it has to be destroyed, there’s no appeal.

However, in one area of painting there are so few experts that (I understand) the market is rife with fakes, and that is Russian modernism. It is this area where my original art forger plied his trade and, apparently, his forgeries were so authentic he fooled museums and auction houses all over the world. He even fooled himself, being unable to tell his forgery from an original – which is a bit scary. After all, if the forger himself can’t spot the forgery, how can the rest of us?

A Decade of Austerity has Changed Nothing

This October, it will be ten years since global bank Lehman Brothers went under and the last financial crash took hold. Because of this, people all over the world are living under “austerity measures” (these actually vary on where one lives, but they tend to fall under this heading) which have been promised to end “soon”. What’s never clear is when “soon” is and it doesn’t look like being in the near future.

Looking at it from the distance of ten years, I can’t honestly see what has changed, apart from the haves having more and the have nots having less. Admittedly, there weren’t as many food banks, pound shops, charity shops, people sleeping on the streets, people having to choose between heating and eating, people on benefits being allowed to burn to death because Local Authorities took the cheapest option when it came to refurbishments…

A little while ago I read Naomi Klein’s latest book, No Is Not Enough, and it made me angry as anything. I’m starting to wonder if I should just do a re-read of all her books as they are still as relevant today as they were when they were published. This tells me that despite those promises to the contrary, a decade of austerity has changed nothing at all.

A Quick Catch Up

I’ve been reading quite a lot lately, but I’ve been having some trouble converting what I’ve read into potential blog posts. This is not because the books have been particularly tedious or overtly political (although a couple have) but the reverse – quite often, there was so much I wanted to say that I didn’t know where to start.

For example, one of the books I read recently was East West Street by Philippe Sands. Now, on the surface, this is a book about Nuremburg and the development of international criminal law, in particular relating to genocide and crimes against humanity. I say “on the surface” because it very quickly becomes apparent that the book is about so much more; a brief history of Poland from 1900-1945, biographies of the two men at the heart of the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity, and also the Nazi governor of Poland who was tried at Nuremburg; a story of how all of this has impacted on Sands’ own family history as a child of Polish Jews who fled as soon as they could. It’s very reminiscent of The Hare With The Amber Eyes, but instead of a collection of netsuke featuring international criminal law.

I’ve also read Collecting the World, which is a biography of Hans Sloane, the man whose incessant collecting formed the basis of not only the British and Natural History Museums, but also Chelsea Physic Garden. He also gave his name to Sloane Square and Hans Place in London and, like many men of his time, made his money through slavery and sugar production.

One of the books that made me incredibly angry was This Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, which is the only book I’ve found so far that deals with Australia as a penal colony. I was shocked by a lot of what I read, by the treatment not only of the convicts and free settlers but also the Aboriginal tribes they came into contact with. I can quite understand why many Australians insist that they are not convict born; whilst it’s easy to decry that as snobbery, I think I’d be pretty ashamed to admit it as well.

Lastly, I’ve also read Hidden Figures, the story of four African American women mathematicians who helped put a man on the moon. If I’m going to be honest, as a description that tells you nothing, because it starts with the creation of the US Air Force, the development of fighter aircraft, the breaking of the sound barrier and only in the second half of the book does it start to deal with the space race. By this time, we have also dealt with the realities of segregation in Virginia in the 1950s, met more than four gifted African American women and got a taste for some of the work that they were responsible for. I don’t know where I’d start if I wanted to write a blog post about this, because there is so much in it.

I will try to do better in future, but as I’ve just discovered that Naomi Klein has a new book out – which I will read, and I don’t doubt will make me very angry indeed – I may have to write about other things for a while.

Thomas Hardy Sort of Does Gothic

After about four goes, I’ve finally found a novel by Thomas Hardy I actually like – and it’s not one of his well-known ones, although it was mentioned on University Challenge once. Called A Laodicean, it explores the links between old and new money, culture, architecture and the status of women. It has a fantastic villain too – he really is a scheming piece of work, only lacking a moustache to twiddle to achieve perfection. I honestly can’t work out why it’s not more popular than it is.

It also appears to me to contain many Gothic notes, although there is very little about this book that actually puts it in the category of literary Gothic. The most obvious one is the clash between medievalism and modern progress, exemplified by the relationship between Paula Power (the owner of the castle, who inherited her wealth from her railway magnate father) and Charlotte de Stancy, whose ancestors had owned the castle since it was built in the Middle Ages and whose father sold it to pay off gambling debts). Charlotte cares little for her ancestry, preferring to look forward, whereas Paula wishes at one point in the novel that she had such history, telling Somerset that she wished she was a De Stancey.

Throughout the novel, Paula oscillates between medieval romanticism – perhaps best represented by the work of William Morris, which may have been contemporary with Hardy’s writing – and the realities of late Victorian life, represented by the telegraph, the railway – and, perhaps, even her name. This conflict is a key aspect of Gothic literature and Hardy makes no attempt to disguise his use of it to move the plot along. And yet – the novel doesn’t feel like a Gothic; the earlier chapters are set in Wessex in the late summer, and have that golden/russet quality which I always associate with Hardy. I find myself back at the point where I wonder what makes a book Gothic other than critics calling it a Gothic, and I think the canon is a little narrow on this point.

Anyway, I’m just happy – and still slightly surprised – that I’ve actually managed to read a Thomas Hardy novel without wanting to jump off a cliff at the end.

CHARLES I ON HORSEBACK WITH HIS EQUERRY – VAN DYCK

I’ve recently finished a book about the sale of Charles I’s quite substantial art collection, and Charles II’s attempts to reconstitute it to form what is now the Royal Collection. Unfortunately, the book was written some years before the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy although the revised afterword did allude to the prospect of some of the paintings coming together for the first time since the mid-1600s. However, the book opens with a discussion of this painting, which apparently (according to Art UK) is in Cornwall (although there are other versions in Apsley House and the Manchester Art Gallery); but I have a rather different thesis than the author.

I’m fairly convinced that this image is partly responsible for the English Civil War. A bold statement, and I know full well that there were many other causes of the war, but I think this painting was instrumental. Here’s why.

Charles Stuart was never meant to be king. He had an older brother, Henry, who died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 15. Henry was, like his Tudor namesake, very much a sportsman and soldier, fit and able and keen on a variety of gentlemanly pursuits. He was also a keen art collector, and after his death his art collection was divided between his parents (James I and Anne of Denmark) and his younger brother, who had been considered by the family weak, feeble and not expected to survive for long. Indeed, it took James I five years after Henry’s death to have Charles proclaimed Prince of Wales, because nobody thought he would live long enough to succeed his father.

So already this painting feeds a lie; Van Dyck wishes to give the impression that Charles was militarily capable, authoritative and a bringer of peace throughout his kingdom. Contemporary evidence demonstrates that nothing could have been further from the truth. Charles, reliant on advisors who wanted nothing more than to advance their own causes, was indecisive, frequently deceitful and genuinely believed that, as King, he could do no wrong. He was above human law in all respects, right down to paying his debts. He never talked about money, as it was vulgar, and when chased for payment of his growing art collection, was affronted that these artworks were not gifts to His Majesty.

In creating this image of his monarch, I do feel that Van Dyck was pandering to Charles’ vanity and in so doing, promoted the image of Charles that he very quickly came to believe. It was unfortunate, then, that it proved so costly; in treating Parliament as a vassal and in believing he was above the law of man Charles lost everything. This begs the question of whether a more realistic portrait would have changed anything; I believe that it would have deprived Western Art of a master of baroque portraiture, but it might have given the King a much-needed reality check. We shall never know.