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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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?

Lucy Worsley on the WI

This was broadcast during the World Cup but I taped it so that I could watch it again at my leisure. I’m not a football fan, mind; my response to the prospect of wall to wall football is not even to turn the telly on, so I didn’t see it the first time round. Which is a shame, because it actually wasn’t at all bad.
I know some people can find Lucy Worsley irritating – His Lordship is one of them – but there’s no doubting that she engages with her subject and often humanises history for us mere mortals. The Women’s Institute isn’t a subject to many people’s tastes, but the fact that her documentary was called “Cake Bakers and Trouble Makers” was enough to get a couple of people I know asking about the latter part.
For the fact of the matter is that the WI has an illustrious history of radicalism and, in its way, being ahead of its time. Originally imported from Canada, it quickly caught on with the rural housewives of England and Wales in the early part of the century. The first known Women’s Institute was opened in Wales in 1915, but by the end of the First World War, there were a couple of hundred Institutes scattered throughout the country as, for the first time, many rural women found themselves able to earn their own money through baking, preserving and handicrafts. The money they made was quietly squirreled away for the rainy days that many of them would suffer sooner or later.
Many early WI branches had close links with the women’s suffrage movements and, especially after the war, they campaigned not only for women’s rights but for the rights of rural populations generally; they wanted improved sanitation, better education for children of both sexes and better housing for farm workers, as many agreed that the countryside was being sidelined by urban improvements. This campaigning spirit continued even during the Second World War, when the first resolution for housewives to be paid for the work they did in the home was made – and passed – at the AGM in 1943.
As Dr Worsley stated, this was revolutionary stuff.
Although the WI lost a lot of ground to the Women’s Liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s, some of the issues were common to both; free and accessible contraception, equal employment rights, that kind of thing. It’s just that the WI has always had a rural, housewifely reputation and, to be fair, this is something they’ve rather cultivated over the years. For a single woman in central London, or Liverpool, or Newcastle, or Bristol, the WI didn’t have anything to offer, although this changed in the late 1990s as increasing numbers of Borough Branches, which had a more overtly feminist outlook, started to open in urban areas.
There’s an interesting dichotomy at the heart of the Women’s Institute. For an organisation that claims to be non-political, it has a long history of political activism and from the outset was a model of democracy, with every member being equal and having an equal right to propose and vote on resolutions. In 1915, when women did not have the vote, this was a woman’s only political outlet and one that many women chose to take up. It is also possible to argue that they played a vital role on the Home Front during the Second World War, and were definitely given ration privileges to use for the greater good.
It’s just that you can’t help feeling that the WI is full of middle aged and elderly ladies who used to be headmistresses and hockey captains at private girls’ schools – and very little that Dr Worsley offered in her programme made me feel otherwise.

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.

The Original Fly

Ringtones are strange things; while they may be incredibly meaningful to the owner, they are often simply irritating for everyone else. The reason I mention this is because a former work colleague of mine had the voice of the fly/human hybrid screaming “Help me! Help me!” from the 1958 movie (the best in my opinion) as her ringtone, and it drove the rest of us absolutely nuts. She thought it was hilarious.

Anyway, this late 1950s B movie is one of my favourites, in no small part due to the presence of Vincent Price, one of my favourite actors. Gosh he was handsome in his day. Surprisingly, Vincent isn’t the villain of the piece – not that there is one – nor is he really the main character. The plot of the film is familiar – a scientist is experimenting with a matter transportation device and tests it on himself; unfortunately a fly becomes trapped in the transport chamber with him, and their molecules merge – the fly now has a human head and arm, and the scientist has the head and arm of a gigantic fly. Unfortunately, he also has the temperament and instincts of a fly, so as an act of kindness, she crushes the creature under a hydraulic press.

Although the plot is explained during the course of the film, the ending is still quite chilling – the “white headed fly” (i.e. the one with the human head), which has aged in accordance with “fly time” rather than “human time”, is trapped in a spider’s web and the very hungry builder is heading towards his lunch before humans intervene, destroying the web, the spider and the fly.

I’ve seen this film more times than I care to consider and although there’s no overt horror in it (unlike the remakes), there’s definitely a sense of chill about it. It’s partly the interrelationship between the scientist and his increasingly frantic wife, as she desperately searches for the fly so that he can attempt to reverse the accident and finally agrees to crush what remains of her husband in a hydraulic press; it’s partly how her story is simply considered a fabrication and she is insane; and it’s partly the matter of fact way in which the entire story is told. For its age, it’s very well done and demonstrates that one doesn’t need copious amounts of gore to make a good thriller.

Walter Sickert and Jack the Ripper

Walter Sickert’s name has often been linked with that of Britain’s most infamous serial killer – most recently by the efforts of Patricia Cornwell – but the only definitive link between the two is this painting, completed in 1907, called Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom. It was inspired by a room Sickert was lodging in, as his landlady at that time believed that a previous occupant was guilty of the crimes, although this has never been substantiated and the lodger’s identity remains unknown. It’s a suitably dark, gloomy room so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find there was some truth in the idea.

It has to be said, though, that at this time Sickert was going through a phase of painting scenes linked with murders. Another contemporaneous work was the Camden Town Murders, finished in 1908, which shows a couple in a bedroom – she is naked in bed and he is fully clothed and sitting on the edge of the bed. It is unclear from my viewing whether they are killers or victims – or one of each. The painting’s alternative title, “What Shall We Do For The Rent?” doesn’t offer any clues either.

It is generally considered that the idea Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper is a conspiracy theory based in a fanciful story that first became public in the mid-1970s. It is unfortunate that someone of Patricia Cornwell’s standing and intelligence feels that there is a foundation to this idea; particularly when it is not really substantiated by many other Ripperologists (for want of a better word). For my part, I’m merely happy that the Ripper is dead, which is about the only thing we can say about him with any certainty.

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale

I have an awful confession to make. I’ve never seen either of the two film versions of this story (both called Total Recall; one starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doug Quaid, the other starring Colin Farrell in that role), but I have read the story a number of times and know it quite well. So my comments here are based on the story, not on the films and if they differ in any way, as far as I’m concerned that’s to their detriment.

Doug Quaid is a clerk who wants to go to Mars. He doesn’t just want to go – he really, absolutely, has to go. He doesn’t know why, but he has this feeling that Mars is the place for him. I know how he feels, I’m like that with Transylvania. Anyway, there is absolutely no chance he will physically gets there, so he pays a commercial company to implant fake memories of a trip to Mars that, to all intents and purposes, will appear completely real to anyone who questions it. It’s just that there’s a small problem…

I love this story, and I particularly like the delicious twist at the end. Knowing my luck, I’ll get to Transylvania and find out that I had been there in a previous life and that’s why I’ve always wanted to go back. The nature of reality and the nature of memory are two things that Philip Dick plays with a lot in his fiction and this is a great example of just how nebulous these things really are. I can see how Hollywood would have tweaked it to get a feature film out of it, but I much prefer the little dramas played out in the story.

Mithina’s Sad Tale

It’s an interesting contrast, given what I’ve recently learned about Dido Belle, to consider the story surrounding the sitter of this small watercolour by Thomas Bock. This is Mithina, an indigenous Australian from Tasmania and was about eight years old at the time of this portrait.

If she seems rather well dressed for 1842, it may be because she had been “adopted” by Sir John and Lady Franklin, the governor of the province at that time, although they took pains to crop her hair and force her to wear shoes, which hurt her feet. However, here the comparisons with Dido fall away; Dido was given an income, her freedom and was able to dress well, even if she could not mix in polite society. Mithina was, to all intents and purposes, abandoned at the nearest orphanage when the Franklins returned to England and was dead before her eighteenth birthday.

As a convict artist, Bock almost certainly had some sympathy with the indigenous population, driven out of their ancestral lands by white colonists and convicts alike. He painted a series of portraits of various native peoples, treating them with the same respect a society painter would have painted the Franklins.

For me, though, the story behind Mithina’s little portrait is heartbreaking. She wasn’t treated as a person – she was a novelty, an object, fit only to be left behind with the unwanted furniture. This is the legacy of colonialism throughout the world and it’s appallingly sad. It does make you realise how fortunate Dido was, even if she remained a second class citizen herself.