Thursday, 18 May 2023

Midlands Explorer - Wightwick Manor

Here is all the fake Jacobean architecture you could want. It's a late-Victorian creation and it fooled me, a little bit. But if you don't come here for the house and lovely gardens, with some splendid specimen trees if you are in the market for those, then your reward is the astonishing collection of Pre-Raphelite works collected by a later generation of the family in the 1930s. 

The place is awash with Burne-Jones, Rosetti, Millais, and Evelyn and William De Morgan. It's hard to know where to look first. Be prepared to take a good long time going around the house and to put up with the usual over-enthusiasm from the volunteers. 

Why is it that if you show a longer than average interest in a picture or are actually discussing it with your companion, they take that as an invitation to tell you a whole load of things you already know, and practically run across the room to do so, not caring whether they are intruding into a conversation? Beats me. Annoys me. And it happens all the time. I do wish the National Trust would remind their helpers that they are not the centre of attention and that I don't appreciate someone's arm being thrust an inch from my face.

Bof! On with the art, some of which you have to strain your neck to look at, as it is hung in exactly the place the family had it and given the don't cross this line ropes, it is sometimes out of comfortable eye reach. There is too much to choose from, so I'll take just the one portrait by Millais of Effie Gray with foxgloves. It's easy to miss in a hallway, but it is the important painting that signals their love and her bravery to get away from the cruelty of Ruskin. Fabulous.

Wednesday, 17 May 2023

Hidden London - Looking for Dylan

The 14th of May annually is Dylan Thomas day. It's not his birthday. It's not his death day. It's the date Under Milk Wood was first read on stage in New York. And why not commemorate that? Feeling anti-social this year, I decided to make my own little pilgrimage to somewhere very much off the beaten track of all things Dylan. No boat house in Laugharne. No Wheatsheaf in Fitzrovia. I look myself down to the river not far from home. 

Dylan and his family lived at 13, Hammersmith Terrace in the winter of 1941-42 and on into the spring of 1942.  It's a five storey Georgian terraced house that backs directly onto a famous stretch of the Thames. Lots of artists have lived around there over the years (Eric Ravillious, Emery Walker, A.P. Herbert who owned number 13 and invited the Thomases to stay, and William Morris had his press very nearby). 

Next door at number 12, can this be conicidence to his choice of studio/bedsit? was apparently the birthplace of his wife, Caitlin MacNamara. 

I look up at the typical London brick and wonder what Dylan got up to in Hammersmith. His carefully collated Collected Letters helpfully supplies some answers from the few he wrote from this address. He was writing, but only in the time left to him after his work for a film company producing short films for the Ministry of Information.

Dylan hated London at this point where 'even the sun's grey... the grey gets in your eyes so that a bit of green nearly blinds you and the thought of the sea makes you giddy as you cross the road like a bloody beetle,' and his colleagues odious 'straw men, sponge and vanity boys, walking sacks full of solid vinegar and pride, all the menagerie of a world very rightly at war with itself (And even now the ink is spitting.)' (May 1942) 

And he hated his poverty: 'You don't know, I suppose, anyone with any furniture stored in London and who would want to give it to a good home? The only things I have are a deckchair with a hole in it, half a dozen books, a few toys and an old iron. These would not fill even a mouse's home. It is very good sometimes to have nothing; I want society, not me, to have places to sit in and beds to lie in; and who wants a hatstand of his very own? But sometimes on rainy, nostalgic Sunday afternoons, after eating the week's meat, it would, however cowardly, whatever a blanketing of responsibility and conscience, be good to sprawl back on one's own bourgeois chair, bought slippers on one's trotters.' (May 1942)

Although writing such as this has always to be read realising his teasing use of hyperbole for dramatic effect. So there you have it. He was miserable and fed up and often on the move. Sounds very much like typical Dylan-times. I hope none of this rubs off on me this week as I am rather buoyant and pretty happy.

Further reading

Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters (London: J.M.Dent, 1985)

Thursday, 11 May 2023

Midlands Explorer - Moseley Old Hall

I tried my best to avoid all things royal this past weekend - don't get me started on the subject - but what happens when you take yourself off to a 17th century Manor House near Wolverhampton, is that you end up tripping over them. 

In this case the encounter was with the future Charles II during his flight from defeat at the battle of Worcester in 1651. Having hidden in the famous oak tree, he was given shelter by the Catholic family here, even hiding in the priest hole between the house's upper and lower floors under the garde-robe when Parliamentarian forces came calling, before making his escape via a very circuitous route through England and across the Channel to France. Pity he came back.

On a small enough scale to imagine living in it, Moseley Old Hall is a delight of wooden interiors, including chapel in the attic disguised as a school room, pleasant parlours and bedrooms, and a lovely knot garden. Most impressive were the stump work embroideries of which there were many, along with the Royal and Parliamentary propaganda. 

Wednesday, 10 May 2023

Midlands Explorer - The Barber Institute, University of Birmingham

In purpose built Art Deco, all polished marble and clean lines, the Barber Institute of Fine Art is on the campus of Birmingham University. It's free-to-visit collection, gathered by the wealthy Barber family, ranges from Mediaeval religious paintings to the turn of the twentieth century art. Along the way there is work by Botticelli, Bruegel the Younger, Rodin, Degas, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Monet, Sickert, Magrite and on and on. 

When I say work, I mean one or possibly two examples thereof. So, yes, it's small, but it is perfectly formed and a great way to spend an afternoon sampling four hundred or so years of painting and sculpture. 

Whilst there are only four painting by women artists, one of them is an absolute jewel. Countess Golovina by Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun is a delight of post revolutionary French portraiture. I enjoyed drinking in her smile for a good long time. 

Monday, 10 April 2023

Hidden London - Strawberry Hill House

Horace Walpole's 18th century Gothic fantasy is tucked away from the river in Twickenham. It fell into a ruinous state and was restored and reopened in 2010.

Thirteen years later and some eight years since my last visit, the exterior could do with a serious paint job. The interior is holding up well. On this Easter Sunday it was a relatively quiet place to come. 

A sunny day with others elsewhere meant we were unbothered by our fellow visitors and had our pick of spots in the garden for the first picnic of the year.

Even the guides were of the more unobtrusive kind. I hate being told the blindingly obvious or the readily researchable.

I love the garish bling of the house. It is mad, really bonkers. Yet one might imagine living there. A pity then that the furnishings and objet were scattered in a 19th century auction.

Go if you love gold, trope l'oil, stained glass and fabulous fireplaces, or want to see a first edition of the Castle of Otranto. Not cheap, but where is these days?

Friday, 3 March 2023

Forthcoming reading

 I'm delighted to be reading with these guys in Reading at the end of April. Do please come along. It's free.

Sunday, 30 October 2022

Aldeburgh Poetry Festival - 4-6 November


Roll up, roll up. I am hosting the open mic on Friday 4 November at 8.30pm. Plus reading new work. Looking forward to seeing you there.