Thursday 24 July 2014

The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714-1760, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

The title doesn’t give much of a clue about what you’ll see at this exhibition. It’s about the Georgians, yes, and it makes sense that the focus is on the monarchy seeing as it’s produced from the Royal Collection. The main perspective, however, I’d struggle to tell you.

The first room doesn’t make a huge impression despite containing one of my favourite items – a letter from Frederick, Prince of Wales to his son (and future King) from 1749 saying he won’t regret not being King so long as George rules worthily. This I found particularly touching considering the Hanoverian reputation for family feuds. Sentimentality aside, it’s a fairly weak start, suggesting the disparate nature of the exhibition as a whole.

After a vague introduction to the royal family there is a painting of James II and his family, hopeful of regaining the throne. Admittedly it is interesting to contrast this with depictions of the Hanoverians, but the impact would have been far greater had it been placed side by side with just such a painting rather than in a connecting room. It raises the idea of opposition but you first have to pass through a room focused on the royal palaces before the theme is taken up again with an area devoted to the Georgians at war.

I’ve been to a fair few of the Georgian inspired exhibitions in London this year and none of them particularly touched on this issue so I felt my interest piqued. I did learn a fair amount and particularly enjoyed the certificate confirming four spies had infiltrated to Jacobite camp on the eve of the Battle of Culloden, as well as the striking medley drawing by J. F. C. Schilling. Plans of battle don’t often have the power to engage me but I imagine if they do that you’d really enjoy this section.

That the next area deals with Hogarth signifies the unconnectedness that let this exhibition down. The final two rooms were inhabited by a plethora of decorative art and furnishings and although I felt as though I saw some impressive pieces they would likely have been more fully appreciated had they been presented in a more coherent fashion. It wasn’t the grand and impressive art that made it worthwhile being there but the personal touches such as the letters.

With so many excellent exhibitions celebrating the anniversary of the accession of the Hanoverians this one, sadly, would not be at the top of my recommendations.

The First Georgians: Art& Monarchy 1714-1760 is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until 12th October, 2014.

Monday 21 July 2014

The Humans, Matt Haig

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Professor Andrew Martin has just solved the Riemann hypothesis, one of the most important, unsolved mathematical problems. A distant planet, Vonnadoria, sends an assassin to kill him and destroy all evidence of his discovery. This is how we meet our narrator, in Professor Martin’s body but with none of his memories and only a theoretical knowledge of the human race. He is naked, on the motorway, and doesn’t yet have a strong grip of the language. His first attempt to learn about life on Earth involves reading a copy of Cosmopolitan, injecting a thread of humour that will be woven throughout. Armed with his new knowledge and what he’s picked up about social interaction from the way in which passing drivers have reacted to him he tries to find his way to Cambridge and work out who knows about the discovery.

The alien’s motives are a point of ambiguity – are the Vonnadorians trying to stop the technological advancement of humans for sinister reasons or for their own good? A lot of mathematical geniuses are driven mad in their pursuit of knowledge and he reasons that by deleting all evidence of the discovery, which would have led to mathematical advancement exceeding their psychological maturity, he’s saving more lives. This is a logical conclusion for someone from a planet where individual desires are sacrificed for the collective good. He doesn’t have a very high opinion of humans, however, judging them to be vain, greedy, and violent, and he seems to have no qualms about leaving the paramedics who came to look after him after he was hit by a car writhing in pain. Later in the novel he experiences some kind of guilt about the advancement he has prevented by deleting this breakthrough.

It is slightly ironic that he judges humans for their own sense of superiority whilst treating them as vastly inferior to his own race. The moment when his opinions of the species begin to change is when he experiences music and poetry. He realizes that humans are aware of their flaws and that they use art as a way to reconnect with their nature. Eventually, he seems to come to respect humans for their ability to cope with their own mortality and for their courage to love despite the inevitable pain it causes.

At no point is there a lengthy description of Vonnadora; we are given snippets of information as the story progresses. We learn that it is a kind of paradise where life is effortless and there is no pain or death. The shift in our narrator’s opinions show us that the idea of perfection is flawed and that a lot can be lost in creating such an existence. This seems to be the main message – that pain is a necessary part of the human experience and that to truly appreciate love and happiness you have to have known pain.

This is a book that deals with some big ideas, but don’t be fooled in to thinking the author spends the entire time philosophising. The story is interesting and you come to care for the characters as their histories are revealed. There is a slow release of information about the real Andrew Martin which does not paint him in the most positive light. You’re forced to think about how the way you behave impacts on those around you (and hope that if your body was taken over by an alien your loved ones wouldn’t think it an improvement!). The ninety-seven point list of advice for humans may seem to some slightly over-done but there’s some solid advice from an author who has clearly thought deeply about the human condition. The pitch-perfect humour means that it never becomes a dense read. It’s rare to find a book that is so easy to read but also makes you question the way you see the world. For anyone who has ever felt the depths of despair it is a reminder that the pain makes you appreciate the beauty of life, and it is ultimately a hopeful story.

Pick up a copy:

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Adventures in Brontë land

Haworth's Main Street at night
At the weekend I embarked on something of a literary pilgrimage. The village of Haworth, where the Brontës lived for much of their lives, remains a place of great fascination for fans of their work. The Haworth Parsonage has been converted in to a museum and it’s a very special experience walking through the rooms they lived and worked in. The second room on the tour is that in which some of their best loved novels were written and it’s wonderful to imagine the three sisters sitting in there together in an atmosphere that fostered such remarkable talent. Heart wrenching to think of Charlotte alone in the room after Emily and Anne had passed away.

As I walked around their house I was struck by just how incredibly sad their lives were. For their father to outlive his wife and all six children is a harrowing thought. A family of many talents, I had never realized what a tortured soul their brother Branwell was. His painting himself out of his portrait with his three most famous sisters is a deeply sad suggestion as to how he viewed his position in the family.

As well as the opportunity to see the rooms preserved as close to how they were when the Brontës inhabited the parsonage as possible they also have an excellent permanent exhibition which gives a broader context to their work and lives beyond Haworth. It was wonderful to see so many documents in their hand (mostly by Charlotte) and some of their drawings, paintings, and embroidery. It was also interesting to learn of the struggle to make living conditions more sanitary in the village, a problem that goes some way in explaining why so many of the graves in the churchyard hold the remains of those who died so young.

Top Withins
After thoroughly enjoying all that the museum had to offer it was out on to the moors. I’d printed off this walking guide which includes Top Withins as well as the Brontë bridge and waterfall. It’s all fairly well signposted but if you like a bit of reassurance you’re headed in the right direction it’s useful. As I walked the moors I was struck by the timelessness of nature and revelled in the thought that I was experiencing similar views to those that would have been so familiar to some of my favourite authors. I was glad to have walked the extra distance to Top Withins despite the sign pointing out the fact it doesn’t actually resemble the description of Wuthering Heights in the book. I actually found this reassuring as I’d thought on approaching that it didn’t look as I’d imagined it from my reading. I’m also always fascinated by people’s insistence on finding real life parallels in fiction and this is an excellent example.

The trip was every bit as wonderful and inspiring as I’d hoped and I came away wanting to read all the Brontë novels I’ve not yet experienced and re-read all those I have (despite having only just re-read Wuthering Heights in preparation for the visit).

Oakworth station
What I hadn’t realised when I booked the trip was that the steam railway that runs through Haworth is the very same one they used in the film of The Railway Children. This being one of my favourite children’s books and film you can imagine my pleasure on discovering this. There’s something special about steam railways, a romantic evocation of the past that is thoroughly enjoyable.

I stayed at the beautiful YHA run hostel in Haworth which has gorgeous interiors very fitting to its time. I’d definitely recommend it for very affordable accommodation (and an excellent breakfast that will keep you fuelled for all that wandering on the moors). Haworth is a charming village and everybody seemed incredibly friendly. If you’re a fan of the Brontës there’s few nicer places to spend a weekend.
Inside the hostel

Tuesday 8 July 2014

And Then The Storm, Kris Humphrey

I recently had what I thought was a bit of a reading tangent, but now I've been mulling it over I realise it fits quite well with my recent foray in to some of Neil Gaiman's work. Perhaps I'm becoming a bit of a sic-fi/fantasy convert? And Then The Storm is a young adult book aimed at young teens about a boy named Ryan who has fits that lead him to have vivid dreams of a frozen wasteland. With his dog Napoleon by his side he finds himself embroiled in a dangerous plot, trying to help Grace, a time traveller, to prevent some destructive plans coming to fruition.

There's a lot of themes in this book which I think the target audience would really relate to - the nature of loyalty and friendship, and the difficult moment that comes in everyone's life when your world view suddenly changes. The realisation that people aren't always what they seem, and things you've always counted as truths could be wrong is something that would resonate with a lot of young teens as they try to make sense of the adult world they are entering in to.

I don't claim to be an expert on young adult fiction, but I've always thought that a sign of a good children's or YA novel is its ability to appeal to those of all ages. It demonstrates a clarity of thought, a quality of writing, and a depth that can be appreciated at different stages of life. There are passages in this book that are superbly written, the descriptions of Ryan's fits being particularly vivid and evocative. The quality of writing and engaging storyline keep you gripped. In places slightly scary, in others moving, this is a book with a heart that doesn't skimp on the action. I'd be lying if I said the nod to the past in the choice of name for Ryan's dog, and the eminently sensible nature of some of his grandad's opinions on history didn't make me smile, but that might just be me. Either way, this is an impressive debut from a promising new voice in the young adult market.

And Then The Storm is currently available as an eBook and if you enjoyed His Dark Materials or Artemis Fowl it's worth giving it a go.

Friday 4 July 2014

William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain (V&A)

On entering the exhibition you are greeted with a portrait of a confident William Kent by William Aikman. Unusual, such an assertion of status at a time when living British artists were not afforded any more status than workmen. This sets the tone of the exhibition – here you will discover quite how influential and integral to the creation of a new national aesthetic Kent was.

With the accession of the Hanoverians in 1714 it was felt that a new nation was being formed, and it was believed that art and culture were central to this regeneration. Inspiration was drawn from Italy and Kent conveniently returned to England in 1719, having spent ten years travelling and studying in Italy. Armed with his finely honed talent and his new friend, the third Earl of Burlington, he was ready to transform the face of Britain.

His career coincided with a huge increase in country house building and development and he played a key role in the aesthetics of many of the most prominent. From Wanstead House to Chiswick House, the most famous and most visited of all Anglo-Palladian villas of the period, his designs could be seen pervading the interiors. He was the first British designer to tackle the interior as a whole, and he had control even of where the paintings were hung (often in frames designed by him!).

It wasn’t just the homes and gardens of the aristocracy that Kent designed, he had royal patronage through generations of the royal family. Interesting to think of this feuding family all having the same favourite designer. His work for the royals helped to integrate his designs in to the public imagination. Beyond the grand buildings, some of which are still prominent London landmarks, he also designed a grand barge for Frederick, Prince of Wales which would often be seen on the Thames, as well as temporary structures for grand occasions such as weddings and coronations.

His architecture, metalwork, landscaping, and furniture are all celebrated in this exhibition. His work wasn’t universally popular, however – William Hogarth loathed the obsession with Italian style and the Anglo-Palladian style that Kent promoted. Having Hogarth’s paintings next to the objects that he exaggerated and satirised gives an interesting insight in to the work of both of these great men.

I went in to this exhibition unaware of the majority of Kent’s work but as I was drawn along through this beautiful space I came to realize just how vast his talent was. The final serene room showing his romantic visions for garden design is a lovely end to a well thought out, excellently displayed exhibition. The message is very clear – William Kent was the most important of the early Georgian designers in shaping the design of Britain, a claim difficult to dispute when faced with such broad evidence of his talents. Perhaps a small injection of acknowledgement to others working at the time would have made it feel a little less biased, but then who can argue with such obvious talent?

William Kent: Designing Britain closes on 13th July. It’s definitely worth finding the time to go.