Sunday, 3 January 2021

'Turner's Modern World' at Tate Britain

Tate Britain holds the national collection of Turner paintings so it's fitting that its latest exhibition focuses on Turner. The core of the exhibition shows Turner's paintings reflecting the changing world, from the pastoral idyll of previous years to the mechanised world and steam engines that led to where we are today. Something I'd never thought about before is that for the first half of Turner's life Britain had been at war with other countries, as one of the signs pointed out, and that's bound to affect the type of art produced at the time. And it did, with drawings and paintings of forges making canon and weapons. steam rising and flames flaring, warships at sea, storms and shipwrecks. There's a lot going on in this exhibition.

I was quite surprised at the range of media Turner used, primarily watercolour, gouache and oils, mixing his media to experiment with effects. It was also quite exciting to see some of his small sketchbooks on display with his delicate little drawings and studies. I always find it fascinating to see artists' sketchbooks, to see their doodles and random drawings of things that caught their eye or playing around with different compositions. 

Turner was born in 1775 and entered the Royal Academy in 1789 at the very young age of 14. That is, of course, the year of the French Revolution which must've been an influence on his thinking. The Academy taught classical drawing and discouraged depicting modern subjects, preferring to see history paintings as the true artist's subject. He later went on to become professor of perspective at the Academy in 1807. I was quite taken with this small painting of 'Edinburgh, from Carlton-Hill' which shows the city in transition as it expands and grows, in which he used graphite and watercolour. 

I also liked his larger painting, 'The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory'. There's so much going on in this painting and at the still centre is the death of Nelson as the French navy surrenders at Trafalgar. It's a bit jingoistic but that was the state of the country at the time with the death of a hero as he achieved a great victory. 

I quite like the detail of the title putting the viewer in a specific place to watch the scene. I also like the complicated composition, with waves reaching into the air to mingle with the smoke of gunpowder, sails billowing from various ships, showing the complex mess of a sea battle in which sailors are battling the wind and waves as well as the opposition. And the tiny figures of the seamen, dwarfed by their ships.

Turner took a different approach a decade later when he painted 'The Field of Waterloo', rather than showing signs of martial victory and jubilation he shows a more realistic view of the aftermath of war, with piles of bodies and women searching for their menfolk. The dramatic lighting and billowing smoke add to the effect. When the painting went on tour (as happened back then) it was accompanied by a line of poetry from Byron, 'friend and foe in one red burial blent'. 

Turner also painted more 'domestic' scenes of the small events of our lives, such as 'A Country Blacksmith Disputing upon the Price of Iron, and the Price Charged to the Butcher for Shoeing his Pony'. Again, a lovely descriptive title for a painting of various characters doing things. It is also a comment on the costs of war to ordinary people as prices increase to cover the burdens of extra taxes to cover the costs of war, in this case, on iron.

Continuing with social commentary a room of the exhibition is given over to paintings considered to be potentially upsetting to visitors, with a sign at the doorway reading, 'Content Guidance. Artworks in this room depict human suffering and the deaths of enslaved people.' A timely reminder that slavery wasn't abolished until 1807 and 1833 in the overseas colonies and territories.

The next room considered some of Turner's 'biggies' , or at least big to me since they are normally in the National Gallery and I've seen them many times, 'The Fighting Temeraire' and 'Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway'. I don't know why but I quite love these two paintings, maybe familiarity, and I've attempted to copy 'Rain, Steam and Speed'. I love looking for the hare racing ahead of the train - and I don't always see him - and the boats on the river below the bridge. It's an astonishing painting in many ways, a magnificent experiment in trying to capture atmospheric effects.

Before going into the final room I noticed two small watercolours, 'Shields, on the River Tyne' and 'Newcastle' from 1823 when he was doing his series of the 'Rivers of England'. They're lovely little paintings but the locations are unrecognisable today. The sign beside the 'Shields' painting notes that the keelmen worked round the clock to load coal onto the boats to provide the power for Empire before becoming victims to the mechanisation of the process. The curator has clearly never heard the song 'Cushy Butterfield' sung by a brokenhearted keelsman in Gateshead who loves our Cushy.



I visited this exhibition on, by chance, the first day after lockdown at the start of December and the gallery was almost empty so I had the joy of walking into several empty rooms, just me and the art rather than the usual crowds. It was like that in the final room of the exhibition, just me to wander round the art and the guard sitting in the doorway. I was just lucky to already have a ticket for the day but I assume it got busier over December before the current lockdown.

The final rooms contain two paintings hung side by side just as they were when first exhibited. There is 'War: The Exile and the Rock Limpet', a stark painting of Napoleon in exile, and 'Peace: Burial at Sea', a darker painting of Turner's friend, the painter David Wilkie's burial at sea after dying of typhoid. It's a very dramatic painting with black sails on the ship since Wilkie wasn't allowed to be buried on dry land. It's a very dramatic painting and very powerful when you see it right in front of you. He was obviously a good friend.

And there you have it, the biggest exhibition of Turner's paintings for a long time, all on the theme of reflecting the changing world and society he lived in. I was very lucky to visit when I did, when it was so empty so I could enjoy the paintings without crowds. I hope the Tate extends the run of the exhibition to take into account the lockdowns since I'd love to visit again. If you can, it's well worth a visit.

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Plastic Bag Awards 2020

As we spring into a new year it's time to look back at 2020 with the Plastic Bag Awards, the Baggies 2020. It's been a funny old year really with too much time spent at home and not enough time spent out and about but that's how it goes sometimes. To reflect the times there are some new categories for the awards. My lockdown started on 16 March so the year had hardly begun. The jury was socially distanced at all times and didn't have too many problems judging the entries this year so here we go, the Baggies 2020!

Best Theatre

In a slow start to the year I only managed to see two productions:

'Rags' at the Park Theatre
'The Visit, or the Old Lady Comes to Call' at the National Theatre

'Rags' is a musical about immigration to New York in the early 1900s so big themes but a small production in a small theatre. 'The Visit' is a strange play in which the richest woman in the world wants her first boyfriend to be punished for getting her pregnant many years ago and she has the money to make it happen. A total opposite to 'Rags' since this was on the big stage of the Olivier Theatre at the National with a big cast and lots of changes of scenery. In a more normal year I'm not sure either would be nominated but the winner is 'The Visit' because of the excellent performances of Lesley Manville and Hugo Weaving.


Best Exhibition 

I saw ten exhibitions this year so that's a surprisingly good haul. The five nominees were all excellent exhibitions and would have been nominated in a 'normal' year.

'Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution' at the MSK Ghent in Belgium
'Troy' at the British Museum
'Titian: Love, Desire, Death' at the National Gallery
'Artemisia' at the National Gallery
'Turner's Modern World' at Tate Britain

The Van Eyck exhibition was the biggest ever of his works, 'Troy' explored artefacts that tell the story of the Trojan war, the Titan brought together his poesie paintings for the first time, 'Artemisia' was the first exhibition of her works in the UK and the Turner exhibition reflected how he painted and recorded the industrialisation of the country in the first half of the 19th Century. They were quite different in many ways and all were excellent. 

There can only be one winner and that's got to be the Van Eyck exhibition in Ghent. I have fond memories of it, of my little adventure to Belgium, of seeing some of the panels from the Ghent Altarpiece up close to see the detail which is impossible at the Cathedral where it is on display, the incredible detail in even the smallest of the paintings and seeing so many of his works in the same place. Well done MSK Ghent.


Best Building Visited After Two Decades

After seeing a small exhibition near the Barbican I walked down to go to Blackfriars and when I passed St Paul's saw it was open so thought, why not visit? I went online when I got home and booked a ticket. I later got a ticket to visit Westminster Abbey. I've been in both before but not in a couple of decades. The nominees are:

St Paul's Cathedral
Westminster Abbey

It was strange going inside both buildings, everyone masked, following the one-way route and seeing what there was to see. St Paul's was quite empty with few visitors, which was nice, but Westminster Abbey was far more busy, including some tourists. Both have their own history and interesting objects but the award goes to Westminster Abbey for the beauty of the place, the tombs of kings and queens but the Unknown Warrior's is the tomb that's highlighted and, of course, for Poet's Corner. I had planned to visit it again in the run up to Christmas  but that wasn't to be.


Best Face Mask

2020 is the year of the face mask. I started off using a scarf back in March and migrated to using the make-your-own tee shirt sleeve mask since proper masks weren't available anywhere. And then places started making masks and you could buy them so I did. I started to collect them. I got some made up using my own designs from details of paintings and prints. It was a bit of fun, If we need to wear a mask (and we do) then wear a nice one, a colourful one, a mask that says 'this is me'. One of my early favourites was the 'Sunflowers' mask from a detail in Van Gogh's painting from the National Gallery. It was light an airy, fully fitting and my glasses could go on the outside so they didn't steam up. Later on in the summer I got a Rosetta Stone mask from the British Museum, made to a similar design but it feels bigger and more airy and is my mask of choice for gallery visits. This is the mask that wins the award. It's interesting and it works, especially for someone in glasses.


Best Lockdown TV

In lockdown and after, and then as we entered another lockdown, TV companies have had a captive audience but have they risen to the challenge to be creative and cater to our needs? From my point of view, the answer can only be 'no' but there have been some good programmes that have fed me over the past year. These include 'Bake Off' of course, the joyous discovery of 'The Repair Shop', 'Staged' with Michael Sheen and David Tennant performing online in their own kitchens, Charlie Dimmock's 'Garden Challenge' and the glory that was 'Grayson's Art Club' way back in the spring, one of the first programmes to respond directly to lockdown. It's obvious really but the award goes to Grayson and Philippa Perry for 'Grayson's Art Club'


That's a rather abbreviated version of the Baggies for 2020. Let's hope that a normal service can be resumed safely at some point next year. I'm optimistic.

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

'Remembering A Brave New World' by Chila Kumari Singh Burman

 'Remembering A Brave New World' is a new installation at Tate Britain, part inside, mainly outside on the steps. It was created by Chila Kumari Singh Burman and it is fabulous. I saw it in daylight on my last visit to Tate Britain but I bet it looks more amazing in the dark. 

It starts in the old main foyer of the Tate with a decorated tuk-tuk ice-cream van surrounded by neon tubes. I'd forgotten about the new installation so stumbling across this on my way out made me smile. Then opened the door to see all the neon covering the steps and front of the building and couldn't help a little laugh at the joy of the whole thing. It really is joyful and I'm so pleased I started seeing the installation with the little tuk-tuk in the foyer.  


It was such fun walking down those steps, past the stalking tiger and around the neon tuk-tuk to get to the bottom and then turn to look at the whole thing. It's an Anglo-Indian dream, with Hindu symbols and images and English neon writing. Britannia is depicted as Kali and the mythologies of the two countries transposed in neon. It's fun, it's exciting, it's exhilarating, I fell in love with the tiger at first sight and with the various apsaras floating about singing about joy. I couldn't help but notice that Lord Ganesha was floating remarkably close to the ice-cream tuk-tuk. I can only assume that he is partial to an ice-cream or two.



I liked the details of the piece, that the columns were wrapped in scenes of the deities and that the backs of the steps were covered in flowers symbols that pull the eye upwards. That's what pulls the piece together into a whole so it's not just a collection of random neon images. 

The sign tells us that the installation was inspired by Hindu deities, Bollywood, British colonialism, and a childhood trip to Blackpool to see the famous illuminations. The sign ends with the statement that, 'Burman wishes you a happy Diwali, the Festival of Light. it is a celebration of new beginnings, the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness. Remembering a brave new world takes inspiration from the luminous struggles and victories of the past to offer hope for a brighter future.' Excellent words for our current situation.

As well as neon images there are also neon words all over the piece. The title runs along the top of the building in purple neon with other words like 'Love', 'Shine Light', 'Dream', 'Truth', Joy', all powerful words of hope. The ice-cream tuk-tuk is inscribed with her family name and 'Do you like ice cream?', 'We are here coz you were here', 'Free' and 'On tour'. Who could resist free ice cream?  


Needless to say I loved it - what's not to love with all that neon, playful images, inspirational words and so much sheer joy. It's the best winter commission that Tate Britain has had in years and this is what we need right now. I had a silly grin on my face the whole time I was exploring it with the others socially distanced round the bottom of the steps smiling and taking photos. I must try to see it again before it goes, preferably at dusk, I think. 

A few more photos:




Monday, 28 December 2020

Favourite Paintings: 'Virgin of Humility' by Fra Angelico

Another favourite painting is the 'Virgin of Humility' by Fr Angelico. It's part of the Thyssen-Bornimesza collection but is on permanent loan to the National Museum of Art of Catalonia in Barcelona. I first saw it at an exhibition about the collection in Barcelona and it was the first painting you saw as you walked through the door. I saw it again last year at the great exhibition about the Fra in Madrid. It's painted onto a wooden panel and was created over 1433-35 so is a mid-period painting from the Fra.

I love the simple composition of the painting, just the Virgin and Child with five angels, three holding up the cloth of gold behind the Virgin and two at her feet playing music for the holy pair. The baby rests his head against his mother's cheek and offers her a lily. The Virgin holds a vase with roses and a single lily. The cloth of gold is intricate and looks heavy and obviously rich. The angels look too delicate to be able to hold something so heavy but the do so easily. There's a limit to what you can see in a photo online but if you look closely you can see the heavily embroidered thread in the cloth.

I think this is one of the prettiest depictions of the Virgin that the Fra painted. Look closely and you can see her hair to the side of her veils and see it curling underneath her ear. You can slo see that the Child is  wearing a shirt underneath his almost transparent pink robe. The cloth of gold creates a great 3-D effect with the folds across the small rosettes. It's all very effective and realistic. And beautiful. 

It's a very peaceful and serene painting, almost a meditative piece. The amount of fine details suggest it was meant to be seen up close (at least by the merchant prince who commissioned it). I like to imagine seeing the painting in the dark, lit only by flickering candles and seeing the light dance across the painting reflecting all the gold. I wonder if looks like the Virgin and Child are breathing? Imagine having this in your own private chapel and treasuring it, keeping it safe for all this time. I really ought to so more research into this gorgeous painting.

I'd also love to know more about the frame and whether it's original or added later. There's a label at the bottom saying that it was owned by Leopold II of Belgium. The photos I've used aren't the best quality since they were taken on my phone, but they're mine.

Thursday, 24 December 2020

The Christmas Squirrel's Nephew

The forest folk all knew the story of the Christmas Squirrel, how one of their own went off with Father Christmas to help to deliver presents to all folks everywhere on that special night. But memories fade and pass into tradition and tales.  While some creatures spoke of the squirrel who went off with Santa, others talked about the horticultural squirrel who looked after his trees and had the best harvests. The Christmas Squirrel became a family tradition passed down the generations in his family since the young squirrels always seemed to have a special, exotic nut tied with a red ribbon when they woke up on that special morning. The old squirrels who spent more time snoozing than scampering would look at each other and nod wisely, remembering the delicious nuts they'd woken up to when they were young. And the years passed and the memories faded.

The young squirrel moved into the den he'd inherited in the middle of the old woods. It was quite spacious and had many larders and comforts, especially the large bed in the small room off the reception area. This part of the woods had always been a flourishing area but had fallen into ruin and the squirrel knew that his first job was to look after the trees and bushes and bring them back to their best. His family was known for their horticultural skills so it would be a privilege and a joy to carry out this work. Even before he was settled he started pruning the tree, much to the approval of the hedgehog family that lived in the roots of the tree.

He was very industrious and it didn't take long for him to start pruning the blackberry bushes and the hawthorns to encourage them to produce more berries and that autumn he soon had a full larder. He visited neighbours to offer them berries and nuts that were more than he needed, to the hedgehogs, the mice and even to Mr Fox (there is always a Mr Fox).  

The frost arrived, making everyone shiver, and then the snow. The squirrel wore a bright red muffler his mother had made for him and that kept the chill at bay. He was delivering a succulent blackberry to the hedgehogs who lived at the base of his tree when they mentioned that their ancestor had known his ancestor. They mentioned that they remembered his ancestor always wore the scarf in all the colours of autumn and winter when the snows arrived and how he had scampered onto Santa's sleigh one night and never returned. 

The squirrel had heard the family stories but didn't realise that others of the forest folks still remembered his ancestor. He hurried up the tree and into his warn bed as he thought of his great, great oh so great uncle, and he fell asleep. At some point in the night he vaguely heard bells and turned over in his bed to go back to sleep. He had forgotten that it was the special night.

After a deep sleep the squirrel woke up and stretched and opened the front door to his den to find a nut outside on the doormat. Tied with a red ribbon and a bow. He looked at the nut and its shiny ribbon and remembered when he was younger and found a nut on that special morning and here it was again. He looked around so he could thank whoever had left it but there was no-one around so he picked it up and added it to his larder to eat for his lunch. It was the special day, after all. 

That was a long, hard winter, with deep snows and the Great Sickness affecting the forest folks but the squirrel visited his neighbours and always took a small gift of berries or cordial or nuts. He felt it was important to keep in touch with his friends even though it meant going out into the cruel weather rather than keeping snug and warm in his cosy den. And then, one day, he noticed new shoots on his tree and leaves emerging on the bushes on the forest floor and he knew that Spring was arriving. 

He was soon busy once again, as the blossom started to show and the fresh green of new leaves started to fill his vision. He always found time to chat to his neighbours and visitors who came to marvel at his trees and all the colour and growth he encouraged from them. It wasn't long before summer arrived and the squirrel lolled in his trees and watched the life of the woods pass by, with the hedgehogs and dormice and Mr Fox. And suddenly it was Autumn and the busy-ness started again as the squirrel filled his larders and started giving the bounty from his trees to other woodland creatures.


When it became colder the squirrel took his red muffler from the drawer and wrapped it round his neck when he visited his friends. It was surprisingly warm, even on the frosty mornings. The leaves fell and the world was golden. Then the snow turned the world white. The squirrel snuggled deep into his warm bed and drifted off to sleep but then he was woken by a jingling and a merry laugh. 

He looked out of his door and saw a bright, gleaming sleigh in the snow in the clearing outside his tree. He saw a big man in red with a white beard and a squirrel sorting out colourful boxes, some wrapped with ribbons and he remembered it was the special night. He grabbed his red muffler and ran to his larder to pour some cordial into two acorn shells and hurried down the tree to offer them to the two strangers as a welcome to the woods.

The man gulped down the cordial and said, 'I haven't tasted that in years!' while the strange squirrel savoured the taste and said 'Blackberry and gooseberry!' and smacked his lips. The squirrel was wearing a scarf in all the colours of autumn and winter and his bushy tail whisked from side to side. 'Thank you, nephew' said the squirrel.

The squirrel blinked as he realised that this was his great, great o-so great uncle from the family stories. 'O gosh' he said quietly. The squirrel smiled and handed back the acorn cup. He said 'You're doing an excellent job with the trees and I've never seen that bush over there have so many berries. Keep up the good work!' Then he produced a small red and green kerchief full of seeds and handed it to his nephew saying, 'I picked these seeds myself from far off places and all will grow here. The bees will love them!'. With a final whisk of his tail he scampered back onto the sleigh and it climbed up into the clear sky as the man gave a great laugh into the night. 

The squirrel woke up and, after breakfast, he open the door to see a nut wrapped in a red ribbon and another parcel wrapped in colourful paper. He opened the parcel to find a scarf in all the colours of autumn and winter and he clasped it to him. It was true, the old stories were true. The Christmas Squirrel was his uncle and he had visited and left him a special scarf.

The squirrel sat in his armchair clutching the scarf to him, more determined than ever to treasure his uncle's memory and legacy and care for the trees, the bushes and the forest folk. He said out loud, 'Until next year, Uncle...' and then headed to his larders to take his gifts to his friends at the bottom of the tree and show them his new scarf. 

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, 17 December 2020

The Tale of the Christmas Hedgehog

The hedgehog lived at the bottom of a beautiful tree. It was beautiful because the squirrel who lived in the branches was attentive and regularly pruned the branches and harvested the nuts. He was a good gardener. Mr Hedgehog often saw the squirrel scampering along the branches, and the branches of neighbouring trees, but he looked forward to Sunday afternoons when he'd settle down with the squirrel for a good old gossip about what was happening in the wood and what their neighbours were up to. The squirrel lived high up in the branches of the tree in a penthouse apartment. 

Then, one night, Mr Hedgehog saw his friend chatting to a man sitting in a sleigh in the clearing in the wood and, oddly, he found a great big raspberry outside his door the next morning. He saved it for dinner on what he understood to be that special day. The squirrel didn't mention his new friend, the man in the sleigh, and the hedgehog was too polite to raise the subject. But he did comment on the lovely new scarf in all the colours of autumn and winter the squirrel sported.

So the year continued, turning brighter and warmer and the hedgehog busied himself tidying up underneath the tree, keeping it all spick and span. He met Mrs Hedgehog and babies started appearing, more hungry mouths to feed but Mr Hedgehog enjoyed his work and still spent time chatting to his squirrel friend who brought him succulent berries from the nearby bushes. And it got darker and colder and the first frosts appeared and then the snow. 

After telling his babies a bedtime story on that special night the hedgehog looked out of his door and there was the old man again, chatting to his friend and eating some nuts. He saw the squirrel scamper up onto the sleigh and start rummaging through piles of boxes and be-ribboned goodies and start to deliver them to the smallest homes. Gosh, thought the hedgehog, and closed his door and went to his warm bed for a good sleep. He woke up the following morning to a feeling of great joy and, looking outside, saw a big, succulent raspberry wrapped in a deep red ribbon and a basket of fruits for his family. The family had the best breakfast ever that morning.

A couple of days later the friends met for a gossip and the hedgehog asked his friend if he'd delivered the fruit to his door. The squirrel shyly said 'yes' and the hedgehog hugged him in thanks. The squirrel explained that he liked helping the old man deliver his gifts on that special night and he was good at finding the littlest of doors. He blushed. 

The seasons passed and winter arrived again. The hedgehog and squirrel both started wearing their mufflers and then, one day, the squirrel wore his special scarf in all the colours of autumn and winter and the hedgehog knew that this was the special night. He ushered his children into their beds and sat with a warm mug of tea in front of their fire. Then went to bed, waking in the morning to find a raspberry in a red ribbon and a hamper full of fruit. 

And so it went on, season after season, and the hedgehog's children grew up and started their own homes and their own families and the old hedgehog's spines became grey-tinged and he wore his muffler earlier and earlier to keep warm. But still he bustled through the leaves at the bottom of his tree to find the stray nuts that had landed to put into his larder. He enjoyed his cups of tea with his squirrel friend and then, one day, he was wearing his special scarf and his tail matched the colours in his scarf. Later that night he saw his friend sitting in the old man's sleigh and the old man brushed his tail back into it's old red colour. The hedgehog sat back down in surprise. 'Gosh!' he said as he watched his friend flying off in the sleigh. 

The next morning he found the usual raspberry in a red ribbon and basket of fruit outside his door but when he called up to his friend there was no reply. He called up again the next day and still there was no reply. What could've happened, thought the hedgehog, he hasn't come back yet. Another day went by and he trundled over to the next tree he knew a squirrel lived in and asked him to pay a visit to his friend in case he was ill. The neighbourly squirrel soon scampered down to the first floor and said the apartment was empty and hadn't been lived in for a few days.' O dear' said the hedgehog, and shook his head sadly, and told the squirrel about what he had seen on the special night. He told the tale to everyone he met.

The seasons flew by and with only a few blinks it was that special night again The hedgehog knew it was because of the twinkling stars and the far off echoes of whale song. He made himself a strong cup of tea and pitched his chair outside his door, sitting on a cushion and rug pulled over his knees, muffler tight around his neck. He waited.

He heard the faint jingling sound just as he was nodding off and as it got louder he perked up. Then the sleigh appeared with the old man and suddenly he saw his friend, the squirrel scampering about, sorting out boxes and ribbons. The hedgehog smiled. The squirrel scampered around the homes of the folks of the wood leaving presents and then he came up the hedgehog's door with a basket full of fruit and a raspberry tied with a red ribbon. The hedgehog had a tear in his eye as he said, 'Hello old friend' and hugged the squirrel

'Where have you been?' asked Mr Hedgehog and the squirrel replied, 'Everywhere! I have seen such wonders, huge forests and so many impossibly colourful flowers, some bigger than me...' and he shook his head at the memories of his travels. The squirrel looked very red and strong, a squirrel in his prime and his tail twitched from side to side. Mr Hedgehog smiled and shook his head in amazement, his nose twitching as a tear of happiness started welling in his eyes. 'I must go, old friend' said the squirrel, 'this is the busiest night of the year and I have important jobs to do. Take care and pass on my best to Mrs Hedgehog. Until next year.' And with that the squirrel hugged his friend and scampered back to the sleigh. With a roar of merriment from the man, the sleigh climbed up into the sky and headed west with a sprinkling of stardust as the stars twinkled. 

The hedgehog picked up the gifts the squirrel had left and went back inside to sit by the fire. He was happy for his kindly friend and remembered his fondness for flowers and the care he took with the blossom in spring. Mr Hedgehog decided that tomorrow, after breakfast, he'd visit his grandchildren and tell everyone he met about their old friend, the squirrel, and he was still helping the man with his important work. Yes, he thought, I'll do just that, as he got under the blanket and nodded off.

Saturday, 7 November 2020

Lockdown 2020 #5

So. Here we are and it's November. Seven and a half months ago we went into national lockdown in March and the cabal in government desperately didn't want to return to a national lockdown so they invented area lockdowns instead so they can say there is no national lockdown. They invented a new three 'tier' system and London went into tier 2 (high risk) in mid-October. Then on 31 October, the liar-in-chief, the prime minister, announced a national lockdown in England starting on Thursday 5 November until 2 December, except this time schools and colleges will stay open. The scientists have been calling for a lockdown for weeks now but this incompetent government didn't want to upset the backbench MPs or their big business pals so dithered away the weeks at the cost of who knows how many deaths. 

On Saturday 31 October the word was out in the newspapers that the prime minister would announce a lockdown on Monday 2 November in a scheduled public announcement. Then around mid-morning the word on Twitter was that the briefing given to two newspapers was actually a leak - it took the government quite a while to decide it was a leak. Then it was announced that the prime minister would make an announcement at 4pm, then at 5pm, and then he actually did so at 6.30pm. A government that can't even manage to make an announcement at the time it decided on is not fit to govern and lead us through a national crisis. What a shambles. 

The multi-billion pound test and trace system run by Serco and chums still isn't working properly, let alone 'world-beating' as the prime minister claimed, we still don't have a fully staffed NHS system due to brexit and low pay and who knows what may happen now we're entering the colder months of autumn and winter. Last time we were heading into summer with light and warmth but now we're entering winter with cold and darkness. What sort of future are we heading into? I am angry. And powerless.

It's the same everywhere, of course. It's not as if this country, this government, has been singled out for punishment. We're in a much better position than most of the world and we should be grateful for that privilege. If only we had a government that demonstrated through its actions that it knew what it was doing rather than chopping and changing all the time depending on which interest group shouts loudest. We need a picture, a roadmap of where we're going and that's lacking. That's a huge failing by this government.

If you're reading this blog then thank you. Stay safe and be kind. If you can help someone then please do. This isn't going to be easy for anyone so let's help each other. Then, when we can, let's work to get rid of this incompetent government and its shabby ministers.

Saturday, 31 October 2020

Favourite Paintings: 'The Madonna of the Swallow' by Carlo Crivelli

Another favourite painting is 'Madonna of the Swallow' by Carlo Crivelli, a Venetian painter from the late 15th Century. He has quite a distinctive style and most of his works are full of lots of detail, often with swags of flowers or fruit hanging in strange places in the painting. One reason I like it is that, as well as being a great painting, it's in its original frame, so this is what Italian altarpieces looked like around 1490.

We have the Virgin and Child flanked by saints Jerome and Sebastian, both of whom are looking a bit peeved. Jerome has his symbols of the bishop's hat, his books and the lion while Sebastian is clothed for once and holds an arrow. The Virgin is crowned and enthroned and above her is a swallow on the lintel, hence the name of the altarpiece. The predella (the paintings underneath the main painting) shows St Catherine of Alexandria, Jerome in the wilderness, the nativity, Sebastian's martyrdom and St George with the dragon. There's probably a very good reason why these five scenes make up the predella but I don't know why.   

Whenever I see this painting I try to find another detail I haven't noticed before, puzzle about St Jerome seems so cross and insistence and why Sebastian seems to be practicing his dance steps in front of his Lord while reminding him with the arrow that he died in his name. The bowls of flowers at the top of the painting intrigue me - who waters them?

If you're lucky enough to be able to get to the National Gallery in London then give yourself a few minutes to look at this painting properly and see what you can find in it.



Saturday, 24 October 2020

'Hamlet' Actors


For no good reason I wondered how many times I've seen Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' on stage recently. It's one of his greats and is one of my favourites. I used to be able to quote huge chunks of it but not these days. In the last 11 years I've seen six different productions. It seems like once an actor reaches a certain age and wants to prove their theatrical credentials they want to play or get offered the part of the Dane.

2009   Jude Law (Wyndham's)

2010   Rory Kinnear (National Theatre)

2011   Michael Sheen (Young Vic)

2015   Benedict Cumberbatch (Barbican)

2017   Andrew Scott (Almeida)

2018   Michelle Terry (The Globe)

I've yet to see a truly great production of 'Hamlet' and all of these productions have something about them that disappointed. It's not the acting, more the production itself, the director's vision of the play, usually wanting to do something 'different' with it, or the sets and staging of the piece.  Jude Law's version was a bit unmemorable (other than lots of running) and the worst from my point of view was Michael Sheen's with it's awful setting in a mental hospital and Ophelia wandering around dropping coloured tablets rather than flowers. It was all so unnecessary and pointless.

Benedict Cumberbatch's version was simply a star vehicle and I really disliked the rubble-strewn second half (I kept worrying someone would turn an ankle walking on it all). Andrew Scott's version was interesting and had a novel take on using technology but what let it down was a new final scene set in the afterlife. No! If the play needed an afterlife scene then I'm sure Shakespeare would've written it. 'Hamlet' ends with Fortinbras taking the crown of leaderless Denmark.


I think my favourites are Rory Kinnear and Michelle Terry, largely because they know how to speak Shakespeare's verse, it's in their bones and they speak so naturally. The productions weren't great but the actors were. Michelle Terry made me want to read the play again and savour some of those great speeches.

The first production of 'Hamlet' I ever saw was with Derek Jacobi playing the title role in 1978, fresh from his huge success with 'I Clavdivs'. He's also part of a theatrical tradition of great Hamlet's passing on a copy of the play from one to another, started when Michael Redgrave gave the small book to Peter O'Toole. The book went to Derek Jacobi and he passed it to Kenneth Branagh who still has it. I wonder who he'll eventually give it to. I saw the book in an exhibition at the British Library a few years ago.

That's six productions in only 11 years so that mean we're overdue another production. I wonder who will play Hamlet next?

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

'Sin' at the National Gallery

The National Gallery has just opened a new exhibition titled 'Sin', an exploration of depicting the concept of sin in art. It's a nice provocative title but I'm not sure it really lives up to the name. It's in the ground floor galleries and is, essentially, a one-room exhibition of about 14 works. The first painting you see as you walk in is Bronzino's 'Allegory with Venus and Cupid' which could mean virtually anything. Beside it on the wall is Tracey Emin's 'It Was Only A Kiss' in neon lighting. 

To mount an exhibition about 'sin' in only 14 works is quite a challenge. The poster girl for the exhibition is Valesquez's 'Immaculate Conception' and the first painting on the walls is Jan Breughel's 'The Garden of Eden', a delightful little painting full of animals he probably hadn't seen when he painted it. We then move on to Cranach's 'Adam and Eve' and the first sin of eating the fruit of knowledge from the forbidden tree.

A work I hadn't seen before was 'The Scapegoat' by William Holman Hunt on loan from Manchester Art Gallery, a rather strange small painting with a woolly goat looking out of the picture in an odd landscape with a moon and  rainbow in the background. The sign explains that the goat is a symbol of sin and it carries away the sins of the people when it's set free to wander away. I can't help but feel that if you've got to explain something then maybe it's not the best exhibit to use. 

The final work is a small statue of a young man lifting up his tee shirt to look at a wound in his side simply called 'Youth' by Ron Mueck. The sign says, 'The work proposes a path of redemption that questions, disrupts and dismantles stereotypes and prejudices....'. That's a roundabout way of saying the young man in the statue is black. Has he been stabbed or is he the risen Christ for a new age? There are many paintings of Christ showing his wound, often to doubting Thomas, and this statue repeats that image but with the lad in tee shirt and jeans. I couldn't help but think back to Madonna's video for 'Like A Prayer' in the '80s and the outrage at the figure of the 'black Jesus' and the burning crosses. 

It's a free exhibition in the ground floor galleries that you can visit after you've seen the collection and before the shop and exit.