Tuesday, 1 November 2022

#56: The Light in Suburbia

The Light in Suburbia: a Year of Lockdown Paintings by Ian Archie Beck

A man I once knew used to enjoy strolling around neighbouring streets on Sunday mornings, looking at houses with their front gardens, front doors with stained glass inserts, hanging baskets, paths. Not in an intrusive way, but rather enjoying the homeliness and even beauty of them. I used to accompany him, slightly mystified at what could be so interesting.

These suburban streets are the world Ian Beck conjures in The Light in Suburbia: A Year of Lockdown Paintings, a book of watercolour and crayon pictures. The shadow of trees thrown on the white curved walls of a 1930s art deco style house; the corner of a garden shed with a trees flowing up next to its corrugated iron roof; a lemonade jug next to a window in spring, its static floral patterns providing an accompaniment to the glancing shadows of leaves behind it.

Observing light

The book is divided into the four seasons and works best for me leafed through chronologically, so the places and objects recur in different lights, just as the objects and buildings around us do through the year. So the lemonade jug in spring appears again in autumn, larger and with darker, more sharply defined patterns.

In the preface Beck describes how the pictures in the book arose from lockdown. Confined to his local area in Isleworth, he used to wander the streets early each morning and observe how the light struck objects. For example, on one trip he notices 'a group of mature trees planted at the corner of a junction of two crossing streets. The trees had been planted by the enlightened local authority at the same time that the houses were built, sometime in the 1920s. I was struck by the warm colour that the light gave to the trunks and branches. There was a haze effect made by the fresh leaf buds and there was an almost golden light beyond in the distance'.

Lockdown proved, says Beck, that he could take a break from illustrating books and 'might just paint for myself, something I had done very little of since the heady days of art college in the 1960s'. Not having to paint to a narrative, he said, proved refreshing.

Isleworth winter evening © Ian Archie Beck

A quieter lockdown story

This is part of the quieter lockdown story then, not the story of vaccines, restrictions and financial emergency but the smaller things that people discovered through reacquainting themselves with their localities. It is a world where many learned to appreciate their neighbourhoods anew, start different projects and even make new friends. Since pets were important for so many during lockdown, I was particularly pleased to learn that Beck was made to discover a new area by his greyhound Gracie, who one day pulled him in a different direction to his usual walk.

Perhaps pictures, rather than words, are the best medium for expressing this quiet break from the narrative of catastrophe in order to take pleasure in the shadows of trees on the backs of houses, or a buddleia bush bursting into an alleyway or marble busts in sunlight.

The Light in Suburbia is available from Unbound.

Alleyway beside Pitt Park © Ian Archie Beck


Sunday, 28 August 2022

#55: Ancestors


Ancestors by Alice Roberts

Seven burials

Ancestors is subtitled ‘The Prehistory of Britain in Seven Burials’. In the book, Professor of the Public Engagement in Science at Birmingham University Alice Roberts uses burials, skeletons and their associated grave goods to talk about Britain and its populations, previous archaeologists’ practices, and current archaeological and cultural thought.

The Amesbury Archer, one of the skeletons Roberts chooses, was found with what looked like wrist guards and flint arrowheads around his body as well as pottery beakers which had been tipped onto their sides. There were also ‘decorated, delicate curls of gold’ which may have been earrings or hair wraps. The archer was 35-45 years old when he died and from the early Bronze Age — 2400-2100 BCE. This is the ‘richest Beaker burial’ in Europe, representing the man’s warrior status, and the grave goods are the earliest known pieces of metal in Britain. Roberts uses the Archer to discuss migration patterns, since he probably grew up in the Alps. 

Buried ponies

Another skeleton in the book is the Pocklington Chariot burial, from two or three centuries BCE. This has an intact chariot with the skeleton of the driver, ‘his body tucked into a crouched position to fit him in’. There are also upright ponies in the grave — headless, probably from a later ploughing of the earth. Roberts asks Iron Age expert Melanie Giles how the ponies got into the grave, upright. Giles replies:

‘Well, from what we can tell, they’re an old pair of ponies… So they’re a tried and trusted team. And maybe they trust their owners — enough to go down into the pit. I would guess they are encouraged to take that jump down into the grave pit, on their own, and then you get the chariot in, harness them up — and perhaps slit their throats as you back-fill rapidly around them.’

It is in parts like these that the book is best — careful recounting of detail together with a reasoned interpretation based on observation and analysis both of the site and of the skeletons. So we learn also that a sword and shield buried with an Iron Age skeleton in the Isles of Scilly were deliberately broken and that the grave contained a rare mirror. These objects, says Roberts: ‘could represent alliances; they could be gifts from mourners; they could be about old battles, won or lost; they could be about putting a version of the past to bed; they could be about imagining a future’. No escape from those ‘could bes’, just as Melanie Giles earlier had said ‘maybe’, ‘I would guess’ and ‘perhaps’. But this uncertainty opens a space for the imagination. A novelist could do a lot with such informed speculation about the ponies, the sword and the mirror.

The book also highlights the processes of archaeology — discovery, excavation, interpretation — and the activities of past archaeologists such as Henry Pitt Rivers, whose meticulous recording of the context of his discoveries were ahead of its time and who inferred population replacement movements from skull shapes, movements which Roberts hopes to confirm with DNA tests on the very skulls he collected.

The book starts and finishes with the Thousand Ancient Genomes Project, an attempt to use DNA sequencing of skeletons in archaeological remains to trace migration patterns to and from Britain, as well as ways in which diseases spread.

A bit scattered

The book is less successful in two main ways. Firstly, I would have liked a drawing together of the evidence from the disparate burials. A timeline and summary of what was found in each dig would be helpful, as would a map of the British Isles with each burial marked on it, and perhaps some kind of imaging of the islands’ main populations at each time. I could also imagine an infogram about how each burial confirmed or cast doubt on previous historical knowledge.

Archaeology and politics

Secondly, in my view Roberts is on shaky ground when she tries to hitch her archaeological wagon to current political preoccupations. For example, the bones of the charioteer mentioned above could not be identified as male or female and the grave contained both a sword and a mirror, traditionally associated with men and women respectively. ‘Perhaps’, says Roberts, such burials, and those of female charioteers, ‘could represent… a third gender. And then perhaps there was a fourth gender we haven’t even spotted; a fifth; a sixth’. 

I take Roberts’s point about not being too hasty with a binary judgement of sexes. However, it seems unlikely to me that Iron Age people were as preoccupied with gender fluidity as parts of twenty-first century society. During the book Roberts gives a great many warnings to the reader not to judge burials according to current views. But is this not what is happening here?


The book is also punctuated by basic homilies on topics such as race and gender — some connected with archaeology, some not. She labels as ‘wrongheaded and futile’ the attempt to value a genetic connection to people from a particular place. She also says the idea of race ‘makes no sense biologically or historically’ and only racists believe in the idea. Well, my local council’s diversity unit sure believe that race exists, as do any number of media outlets and campaigning organisations. The book also contains a digression on the sexism of modern Roman Catholicism, which she describes as a ‘religious empire and system of political control’. I wondered if Roberts, vice-president of Humanists UK, was letting her opinions let rip in the way that cannot be done with a more cautious approach to physical evidence needed as an archaeologist.

Go see the Archer

But we can see the skeletons, and judge some of these issues for ourselves as far as possible. Roberts recommends a ‘pilgrimage’ to Salisbury Museum to see the Amesbury Archer. She describes him as ‘a metal-bending, bow-wielding, time-travelling magician’. This book would be, in parts, a good accompaniment to such a journey.

Saturday, 16 July 2022

#54: E M Forster

Tamsin Greig as Vashti in The Machine Stops © BBC

The BBC blurb for their recent audio production of E M Forster’s short story The Machine Stops annoyed me. It said:

In 1909, E M Forster took a break from linen suits, big hats and unrequited love among the upper classes and wrote a story which predicts…globalisation, the internet, Zoom, algorithms, social isolation and climate crisis.

I assume the linen suits and big hats is a reference to Forster's other novels, such as A Room with a View, A Passage to India and Howards End. I feel the blurb dehumanises a group of people because of their social status and unwontedly dismisses the talent which Forster showed in his other novels.

The Machine Stops is indeed uncharacteristic for Forster in being science-fiction. It is the story of Vashti, who like most other people lives underground with all reality mediated by The Machine, so she never experiences nature directly. One day her son Kuno returns to persuade her to visit him above ground.

More familiar territory for Forster was indeed the early twentieth century worlds of Howards End or A Room with View, in which cultures and families collide and people work out how to respond.

The BBC blurb implies that Forster’s concerns in these other stories were lightweight because they were about the upper classes, who wore different clothes to us. It makes me wonder if the person who wrote it has read any of his novels or appreciated the depth of his characterisations. For example Lucy, in A Room with A View, is a young woman who has been taught how to respond to experiences before they have happened to her. She accepts the aesthete Cecil as a future husband and has to learn in the short period of her engagement — backwards, as it were — whether he really suits her. Helped by George, who she meets in Florence on holiday and who kisses her twice before she has time to think about it, she gradually learns that he does not, and breaks off the engagement. 

Moving on to Howards End, the novel shows what can happen when people of different backgrounds and beliefs are thrown together. The dying Mrs Wilcox’s pencil-scrawled bequest of the house to the Bohemian, literary Margaret Schlegel brings the Schlegel sisters together with the materialistic Henry Wilcox and his conventional family. At the same time, bank clerk Leonard Bast tries to implement his literary learning in his financially straitened life. He meets the Wilcox and Schlegels with partly hopeful, partly disastrous results. 

The novel also shows the power of a house and a location in nature in bringing people together and helping them feel at home in the wider, emotional and even spiritual sense of the phrase. 

Discounting these sympathetic and profound portraits because most of the people were comfortably off, as the BBC blurb seems to do, is prejudice. It does not encourage the sharing of human experience, one of the novel’s achievements.

Forster did not believe in responding to events through already-worked-out schemes of judgement — ideologies or prejudices. To illustrate this I will go back to Lucy in A Room with a View, who has just dumped Cecil. But she is denying her own nature by pretending that she does not love George:

(She was one of) the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor the brain, and march to their destiny by catchwords.

Catchwords: White privilege. Homophobia. Levelling up. Such shorthand should not replace proper thinking, as Orwell warned in Politics and the English Language:

When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.

An extreme post-modernist might claim that all language consists of catchwords, in that it is a common currency invented by society which implements power relations and has an uneasy relationship with reality. On this reading, Lucy would only be swapping one ideology for another in rejecting Cecil for George — and the novel shows us this is not true. He is right for her, for her true self — which includes her physical responses. The 1985 Merchant Ivory film captures very well the stultifying effect of conventional responses and the truth in one’s immediate responses — it is Lucy’s pert, unconsidered replies, outbursts of laughter and anger where she is most herself, where something can happen. And this is to do with the body, as Forster says in the novel.

To return to The Machine Stops. Bodily ‘intelligence’ is something Vashti has forgotten how to use in that short story, as she becomes very anxious when travelling and has forgotten to relate to others face-to-face. When The Machine breaks down, Vashti and Kuno have to learn how to experience the world first hand in the short time left to them.

The BBC blurb says that Vashti and Kuno are brought ‘to the realisation that mankind’s only future is in shared humanity and a connection to nature’. Not so far from Forster’s other novels then, linen suits notwithstanding.

Monday, 23 May 2022

#53: greetings cards

Friends gave me these beautiful cards for my birthday this year and last year. One is a delicately layered affair with lace, a paper flower, a butterfly and a sparkly sequin, all on top of what looks like a professionally distressed page from a French romantic novel. The other is an origami-influenced geometric creation complete with real button. Inside both is perfectly matched lining paper. They are now semi-permanent fixtures on my dressing table — definitely too lovely to throw away. The card designer, Andalucia-based Wendy Jackson, told me how she started making cards after a back injury, and 33 years later is still in love with the practice.

 How did you start making greetings cards?

I started making cards after a car accident about 33 years ago. I was off work for about eight months with a lower spinal injury and my mum decided to buy me some crafty goodies from a company in the U.K., Lakeland Plastics.  I think she was trying to get me to focus on creating, as a distraction from the pain.  

Once I was back at work I mostly made cards for Christmas and family birthdays, but then I would be asked by friends if I could make cards for them for special occasions — it’s grown from there. 

My job in the U.K. was sometimes very stressful, and being able spend a few hours crafting at home afterwards really helped. I think a lot of my crafty friends have embarked on crafting following some sort of illness or life crisis. I suppose that’s why there are so many mindful colouring books on the market for adults….. it’s a huge business!

 How did your hobby progress?

 At the beginning I simply watched craft programmes on television which also meant I would buy what was in the programmes — hence why I have so much crafty stash! But now on Facebook and YouTube there are thousands of crafters giving tutorials, demos or even just showing what they have bought! I suppose that must sound very strange to a non-crafter. Over the years I’ve learnt lots of new techniques.

 I was invited to join a design team for a U.K. designer, Lisa Horton Crafts, a couple of years ago, which was amazing. As part of the team, I would be sent new products before they were available to buy. I would make card samples using the new goodies and then post them back. These samples, along with others from the team, were then used by Lisa on Create and Craft TV to demonstrate the new products. Unfortunately I was forced to leave as post-Brexit the costs for me to receive a free parcel of products was getting ridiculous. I paid €40 once!

 How do you run the business now?

 I’ve called myself Olive Farm Crafts, simply because our house in Spain is La Granja de Olivos. I don’t really see my greetings cards as a business — it’s just what I love to do. If I can manage to sell any cards to friends and family then that’s a bonus really — a few extra pennies to spend on craft supplies! I don’t do anything other than  share my makes online and rely on word of mouth. I’m not good at marketing myself really — it’s not me!

 I am very lucky to have a large craft room here with loads of storage — but I do share my craft space with my hubby (well he has a small corner for his computer…), and when I’m in create mode I do encroach into his space and I’ve even been known to cover the floor with things. I don’t think crafters ever have enough room.

I do love to buy new products as they are released by designers and craft companies. I think that’s the addictive side of the crafting world — we all have to have the latest products even if we don’t strictly need them. A lot of crafters also have ‘full set syndrome’ — we have to have all of the inks or every marker in a range. I’m not alone!

 How does crafting in Spain compare to crafting in the UK?

Finding supplies here in Spain has been challenging as card making isn’t really big business here, though it’s definitely improving. I have a few go-to online stores now. Ordering from the U.K. is tricky these days with the export/import duties, but there are a couple of favourites that are registered now for IOSS International One Stop Shop. This means I can pay Spanish taxes upfront and not be charged by Correos on delivery.

 Do you have any plans for the future?

I would love to be on another design team, based the EU or otherwise purely for digital stamps. I’m always on the lookout for an opportunity that would work for me. I keep thinking of approaching one of the local shops but I’m not confident enough to do that (in English or Spanish!), plus I still want it to be enjoyable. Churning out hundreds of the same cards is not my idea of fun really — making something beautiful that I know will be treasured or loved by the recipient is my motivation.

Find Olive Farm Crafts on Facebook or YouTube.

Wednesday, 9 February 2022

#52: Gallery label: 'The Promise'

' The Promise’ by Henry Scott Tuke

This painting is called ‘The Promise’. Take a look at it (there's a better image here). What might the boy and girl be thinking? Who is foregrounded? The blossom takes up over half of the picture. What effect does this have? What might ‘the promise’ be?

These are the type of questions I sometimes asked to get ‘inside’ gallery pictures and bring them alive a little. So I was very disappointed by the accompanying label:

Evidence suggests that Henry Scott Tuke would today identify as a gay man. By talking about Tuke’s sexuality within the gallery, we are deliberately acknowledging his importance to an established history of queer culture. By recognising this history, it makes us more aware of it and less ignorant to its meaning. It is with this awareness that the artwork then become something more significant and a recognisable queerness emerges.

 Histories of minorities need to be explicitly recognised. The problem is, as ceramicist Matt Smith said when I interviewed him for my book Curiosities from the Cabinet, ‘museums deal with objects and there aren’t that many that are intrinsically gay’. So interpretation has to fill in. This gallery has bravely tried to do this. 

Are brushstrokes sexual?

Nevertheless, I have some reservations about its style (the grammar needs improving) and the content: Even if Tuke was gay, did that inform his every brushstroke? He in fact painted many pictures of naked boys (see his Wikipedia entry for examples), but I can’t help feeling this label would fare even less well next to one of those, since it would explicitly ask us to look at the picture sexually and would diminish it. (According to the Wikipedia entry, his paintings of nude youths are never explicitly sexual).

The label gave me a similar uneasy feeling to seeing a portrait of poet Gerald Manley Hopkins in a Queer Icons exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery exhibition in 2009; there is no evidence that Hopkins might have wanted his supposed sexuality broadcast, or that it explicitly influenced most of his work.

More broadly, I think such an approach risks pigeonholing artists as gay, female, disabled, white, black or whatever, undermining art’s universality and ability to communicate with all. Labelling people in this way amounts to making ‘identity-fragments’, according to blogger Maria Popova, which undermine our wholeness. 

So how would I rewrite the label?

I think by using questions, to invite the reader to look more deeply, which I regard as one of a museum label’s two main functions (along with providing information):

 ‘The Promise’ captures a moment in time which is both intense and fleeting. What are the two youths thinking? What might the promise be?

Tuke worked in the Impressionist style, and lived in Newlyn, Cornwall, with a colony of artists.

 If I wanted to mention Tuke’s supposed sexuality, I would clarify that this is part of the museum’s interpretation, for example: ‘the museum has chosen to place Tuke in its “queer history” group of painters’.

Another label in the same gallery is much more successful in my view in pointing out the artist’s role in activism.The second paragraph reads: 'The artist believed in equal opportunities for women in art. She was a founder of the Manchester Society of Women Painters and in 1922 became the first female associate of the Royal Academy since the 18th century.' I like the way description of Annie Swynnerton’s activism is in a separate paragraph and the first paragraph focuses on the painting itself:

An image of the painting is here.

I wonder if readers have other examples of ways in which museums (successfully or unsuccessfully) integrate an artist or writer’s sexuality into their interpretation?

Sunday, 19 December 2021

#51: Charles Dickens Museum


48 Doughty St

‘Colour in Oliver’ says a leaflet for children I took away from the Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street, near Russell Square in central London. On the top floor of the museum is a cartoon by Cold War Steve doing just that, showing Boris Johnson as fat Mr Bumble saying ‘no’ to Oliver, with Home Secretary Priti Patel grinning smugly behind.

Dickens moved into the house in 1837 as a journalist, along with his wife Catherine and son Charlie, and moved out two years later having finished The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby and the hugely popular Oliver Twist, well on the way to making his name.

Inside the house

Initially I was sceptical about visiting the house since I had read that Dickens’s furniture from Gad’s Hill Place in Kent, where he moved 20 years later, was arranged here. I envisaged rather a miscellaneous jumble of objects in a house with little real connection with the writer.

But as I started to explore the house I was proved wrong, as it dawned on me what attention, planning and knowledge the curators had spent evoking what went on there, as well as Dickens’s life story and the life of the novels, then and now. In the downstairs dining room, where the Dickenses loved to entertain, are plates painted with the names of guests such as Thackeray, a recipe book (so many courses!), silver ladles featuring characters from The Pickwick Papers, and Dickens’s minute instructions to his butler to close the inner hall doors as soon as the gas was lighted.

The house gives a literal structure to Dickens’s life for us. On the first floor is Dickens’s writing desk, its surface a mass of scratches and marks. Next to it is a magazine showing an illustration of that very desk with an empty chair next to it, marking Dickens’s death in the Christmas 1870 edition of The Graphic. Then one floor up is a large print of that very photo enlarged on the wall opposite a bed. Nearby is the lock of Dickens’s hair along with the last instalment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, half-finished when the author died. Nearby is a photo of the graves of his wife Catherine, daughter Dora and sister-in-law Mary Hogarth.

This repetition — first the actual desk with a picture of it in a contemporary magazine, then the same picture enlarged a floor up — is quite rare in museums and made me think of the house partly as an artwork as well as a scholarly creation, as though it were repeating a theme, appealing to the emotions as well as conveying information. Inside the death-themed room too it felt like an evocation of the writer’s death, a few metonymic objects standing in for the reality, rather than a scholarly explanation.

The exhibitions included so well parts of the books — the laundry copper, like the one where the Cratchits in A Christmas Carol boiled the Christmas pudding (in the book the pudding still smelt a little of boiled clothes); parts of Dickens’s life, such as a note from his doctor showing he had a high pulse rate after he had publicly read the episode where Bill Sikes kills Nancy in Oliver Twist; and ways Dickens has influenced others, like an advert showing Barnaby Williams as Fagin at the Birkenhead Hippodrome in 1921. It tactfully acknowledged the life, while seeming to accept that museums can never capture the life and fun of one of the Dickens’s dinner parties.

The ghost of Dickens

As I left the house onto the terraced streets in the outer edge of Bloomsbury, I found by worldview had momentarily changed – I noticed a dreadlocked Deliveroo driver – what would Dickens have made of the gig economy? – and bought a hot chocolate for a man begging outside Pret. A woman with a white cane was being led away from the Royal National Institute of Blind People. The ghost of Dickens, noticing those on the fringes of society, was briefly at my shoulder.

Sunday, 17 October 2021

#50: Egyptian stela

"You'll be fine"

This stela (commemorative stone tablet) in Liverpool University’s Garstang Museum caught my eye. Two Egyptian figures lead a man in Greek dress to the afterlife. I had no idea the Egyptian and Greek civilisations overlapped. But more than that, the figure from a different culture, in between those two familiar side-on Egyptians, enlivened the piece for me.

The first Egyptian figure, with the head of Anubis, god of death and the underworld, looks back, grasping the man’s hand reassuringly. The figure behind seems to encourage him forward, or says goodbye.

I’m not sure why an alien figure in Greek dress should bring this to life for me more than it would if it had three Egyptians figures. It breaks it out of my expectations, I suppose, and makes the figures’ gestures less a matter of artistic form and more human. The middle figure is somehow my way in to that tableau. Were I to give it a title, I would call it The Reassurance of the Gods.

Can anyone enlighten me as to the Greek-Egyptian mix here?