More Than Modernism

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Architecture in Britain from 1919 to 1939 should form a conveniently self-contained slice of history. Since the moment that Neville Chamberlain announced on the airwaves on 3 September 1939 that Britain was at war with Germany for a second time, everything about this period has been analysed and revisited. Of course, architecture has not been […]

Where Wren Meets Richard Rogers

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It is 1715 and Nicholas Hawksmoor is complaining again. ‘When London was Burnt in 1666, out of that fatall accidentall mischief one might have expected some good,’ the eminent architect observes. Yet instead of a ‘convenient regular well built Citty’, the greed of the inhabitants had secured only ‘a Chaos of Dirty Rotten Sheds … […]

Trouble in Paradise

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 1891, Paul Gauguin arrived in Tahiti on board the Vire and, according to one witness, stepped ashore wearing a cowboy hat and un grand air de profond dédain. He could ill afford such disdain: he had long desired to live and work among the local people in the tropics but they hooted with laughter at the sight of him. Particularly amused by his long salt-and-pepper hair, they followed him in the street, calling him ta’ata vahine (‘man-woman’). It was not the entrance the painter had intended to make. The voyage to Tahiti was not Gauguin’s first attempt at freeing himself from ‘everything that is artificial and conventional’. In 1887 he spent some time in Panama, where a shortage of funds – a recurring

To Preserve or Not to Preserve?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In the comprehensive introductory chapter to his huge, energetic and tightly written tome on the two-and-half-century history of conservation battles in our homeland, James Stourton quotes museum director Roy Strong’s celebrated remark that concern for heritage is what has today replaced regular attendance at morning service. Maybe so, but it is equally the case that, just as religious practice over the centuries has been the object of much furious argument, so the battle over what to retain of what

A Tale of Two Cities

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Philip Davies’s splendid new collection of historical photographs follows on from his bestselling Lost London 1870–1945 (2009), which was later transformed into a coffee-table spectacular, Panoramas of Lost London: Work, Wealth, Poverty and Change 1870–1945 (2011). The first question to ask, then, is whether there’s anything new here. The fortunate answer is a great deal. […]

Think of the Live Models!

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I have to confess to taking a voyeuristic pleasure in visiting the places where writers have produced their work. I’ve soaked up the atmosphere in Vita Sackville-West’s writing room, perched like an eyrie at the top of a tower at Sissinghurst. I’ve pressed my nose against the window of George Bernard Shaw’s revolving writing hut at the bottom of

Ode to the Jubilee Line

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

How much does architecture matter to you? To the editors of this anthology, architecture is the most important art because it is the one that cannot be ignored. In their view, ‘a satisfactory, if barren, life could be lived without literature, movies or music, but existence is more or less impossible without architecture.’ Stephen Spender, […]

Move Over, Michelangelo

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In bold orange on the spine and cover of this book are the words ‘The Story of Art’. The author’s name is in blue and also in bold. The cover is yellow, and it is only in a certain light and by holding the book at an angle that you see, faintly outlined in white, […]

Smile & Substance

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Frans Hals was born in Antwerp in around 1582, moved to Haarlem when he was three, found fame rather late, in his mid-thirties, died in 1666 – and was forgotten, at least outside his native country. The apparent lack of finish in his work made it unfashionable in the eyes of connoisseurs and collectors until interest in his paintings grew again in the mid-19th century. In 1865 Hals’s Laughing Cavalier was bought for a vast sum by Lord Hertford and exhibited in London to huge acclaim. Soon afterwards it entered the Wallace Collection. The funny thing about the Laughing Cavalier is that the cavalier isn’t laughing at all. He has a merry eye but is surely smiling

Modern Old Master

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In the last decade, Pallant House Gallery in Chichester has made the running in rethinking 20th-century British art and what that might be, not least in the acclaimed centenary exhibition dedicated to John Minton in 2017, the 2012 double-header that saw Keith Vaughan set alongside Robin Ironside and the superlative Edward Burra show of 2011–12. […]

Paintbrushes & Broomsticks

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

What do medieval and early modern works of art tell us about servants and slaves? The many kinds of servant during this period, from menial maids to court artists, were rarely themselves the subjects of paintings. They filled in the background, like animals, rocks or trees, often in shadow, smaller than the beautiful mistress or […]

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People’s Palaces in the Air

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Architects inevitably serve those with power and wealth in any society, we are often reminded. There are normal levels of grubby client, and then there’s Stalin. Boris Iofan, favourite of the Soviet dictator, best known for his twenty-five years’ work on the communist cathedral, the Palace of the Soviets, had about as evil a client […]

Spectacle of Perpetual Motion

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Wispy, thick, swirled and streaking, the dark lines burst outward, racing or splintering. The strongest impression one is left with while paging through this exquisitely produced volume of Kafka’s complete drawings is of minimally delineated figures in states of maximally dramatised unrest. In two of the early single-page sketches, the human subjects – one on foot, the other riding a horse – are reduced so entirely to curling and back-slanting flourishes that they resemble lines drawn to indicate wind or the displacement of air surrounding figures in motion rather than figures themselves. Even when Kafka’s subjects are depicted on chairs or penned within enclosures in positions ordinarily associated with stationary conditions, their poses are so dynamically strained as to inject the immobilised state with high kinetic tension. Here, movement

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Dreaming in Concrete

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

It is nearly a century since Le Corbusier published Vers une architecture, a battle cry for modernism that would variously inspire and enrage readers for years to come. And it is more than five decades since the collapse of the east London tower block Ronan Point that was widely believed to mark the end of […]

Full of Spikes & Fish Bones

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

This year, Tate is hosting four exhibitions devoted to women artists: Paula Rego, Lubaina Himid, Yayoi Kusama and Sophie Taeuber-Arp (a further show devoted to Magdalena Abakanowicz is in the pipeline). Opening on 15 July at Tate Modern, the exhibition ‘Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction’ comes with an excellent catalogue, which includes sixteen essays that survey her remarkable range. This Swiss artist, born in Davos in 1889, created textiles, beadwork bags and

Don’t Mention the Woolworth Building

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The contest between the United States and the Soviet Union was never a steel-eyed race between evenly matched rivals. You could find reciprocal levels of fear, but not of aspiration or envy. Russians often wanted their country to be a more equitable America; even Gus Hall, leader of the Communist Party USA, didn’t want the […]

He Slept His Way to the Bottom

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Who are we to believe about Stephen ‘Tommy’ Tomlin? The daughter of a Dorset publican thought he ‘could lure the birds off the elm on the village green’. Virginia Woolf, meanwhile, observed, ‘I cannot see the physical charm of that little woodpecker man.’ According to this biography by Michael Bloch and Susan Fox, plenty could. […]

All at Sea

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The first thing we see in this book is the face of a monkey. Or the eyes, to be precise, dominating an oddly cropped snap of the top half of the creature’s head, seeming to stare at the reader. Philip Hoare is visiting a friend who trains primates. This capuchin, named Felix, disconcerts Hoare, who […]

The Female Gaze

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Interest in women’s art is booming. Successful major exhibitions of the work of Lee Krasner at the Barbican, Dora Maar and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at Tate Britain, Artemisia Gentileschi at the National Gallery and Helene Schjerfbeck at the Royal Academy (which also had to cancel a planned Angelica Kauffman exhibition), to name but a few, demonstrate justified faith in the public’s desire to see such art and a recognition that women artists have hitherto been underrepresented in great collections. Jennifer Higgie’s survey of the female self-portrait ranges from Catharina van Hemessen, who in 1548 painted the earliest surviving self-portrait of an artist seated

Neolithic Concrete Wonders

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Peter Nichols called God ‘a sort of manic depressive rugby-footballer’. The same might be said of those in charge of Britain’s public schools, with their compulsory Anglican ‘worship’, compulsory team spirit, compulsory militarism, compulsory misery and compulsory importuning of former pupils to contribute to this or that vacuous project. This last has nothing to do […]

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