Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Epistolatory Fiction

As a teenager, I was given Jean Webster’s delightful romance Daddy Long Legs and its sequel, Dear Enemy. It was my first encounter with a novel written entirely as a series of letters and it is a format I have liked ever since. 

The first epistolatory novel, which I don’t suggest anybody try and read, was Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1745). It was the runaway three-volume bestseller of its day, but much too ponderous for the modern reader, even though its soap-opera plot will not be unfamiliar.

Pamela is of interest to me only because the NGV holds four of the twelve illustrations that Joseph Highmore did in 1762 for the second edition of the novel. They are very elegant engravings, depicting the costume of the time in great detail. Have a look at them next time you visit the NGV – they hang right near Highmore’s self-portrait.

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver consists of letters from Eva, Kevin’s mother, to her husband Franklin. The reason they have to talk about Kevin is that he is in prison, having just shot and killed a number of classmates and teachers at his high school, a scenario that evokes the Columbine killings. This is a chilling novel that grips the reader’s attention right until the startling end.

Ladies of Letters by Carole Hayman gives us the entertaining correspondence between Irene and Vera: they are fiercely competitive and we learn all about their long-suffering families as they strive to outdo each other with their recipes, grandchildren and small-town dramas.

D.E. Stevenson’s four books about Mrs Tim of the Regiment are real Golden Oldies. Set during World War II, they consist of the long letters Hester writes to her husband Tim while he is off fighting the war. Large and small events in the life of her family and the other Regimental wives give a fascinating insight into life on the Home front in the war years.

I'll Be Seeing You by Suzanne Hayes is
another WW2 story, but this time through American eyes. It is 1943 when Rita Vincenzo and Glory Whitehall start to correspond. They seem to have nothing in common except that both of their desperately missed husbands are fighting in a war half a world away from home. Rita is a professor's wife, middle-aged and sensible, Glory a rich, young and impulsive society butterfly. Their developing friendship and how their unwavering support of each other changes their lives, makes this a fascinating book.

WW2 is a rich vein to mine for epistolatory fiction – Joyce Dennys’ Henrietta’s War and its sequel are both charming and funny. Henrietta is a village doctor’s wife and writes regularly to her childhood friend Robert, who is Somewhere in France. As she chronicles the dramas and squabbles of village life, we meet a captivating set of characters and learn how they coped with wartime conditions.

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer consists of letters written soon after WW2 by different members of the eponymous literary society. They are addressed to Juliet Ashton, a London writer, and gradually an intriguing tale unfolds of life under the recent German occupation of Guernsey, seen through the eyes of Juliet’s various correspondents.

Another Golden Oldie well worth re-reading
is 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff: the letters she wrote over twenty years to Frank Doel, chief buyer of Marks & Co, antiquarian booksellers in London. The book is interesting not only for the insight it gives into wartime conditions in New York and London, but also for the variety of books that Helene orders from the bookshop, and her potted reviews of the ones she read and enjoyed. I was introduced to many enjoyable books through Helene!

Reaching even further into the past than
WW2, I have discovered a delightful epistolatory novel (complete with sequel) by Jane Dawkins. In Letters From Pemberley, Ms Dawkins gives us a glimpse into the married life of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, picking up the story where Jane Austen ended it. Elizabeth writes to her favourite sister Jane, now happily married to Mr Bingley and settled down at Netherfield Park. Jane Austen fans will devour these slim volumes at a sitting and wanting more, like Oliver!

Finally, a very slim volume indeed, but one that always makes me laugh out loud during the whole ten minutes it takes to read: The Twelve Days of Christmas by John Julius Norwich, marvellously illustrated by Quentin Blake.  It consists of twelve thank-you letters written by a young woman to her fiancé who is sending her a series of romantic Christmas gifts. From the first enthusiastic thank you for the “charming, romantic little partridge in the lovely pear tree”, to the final solicitor’s letter threatening an injuction if the full percussion section of the London Philharmonic Orchestra is not removed from his client’s lawn forthwith, these letters are hilarious in their escalating indignation.


Marcus Curtius Saves The Day

“Marcus Curtius” 
Benjamin Robert HAYDON
oil on canvas , 76.5 x 63.5 cm
NGV, purchased 1897

 The modern tourist in Rome will hardly notice a small paved basin in the Forum, next to a modest marble plaque showing a fully-accoutred Roman soldier on horseback. This is all that remains of the mighty chasm that, according to legend, opened on that spot in 360BC, three centuries before all the unpleasantness with the Christians and their new god.

This yawning pit was down to the old gods, who announced, (no doubt through an oracle or spokespriest), their requirement for closing it again: Rome’s most precious possession should be thrown in. The good citizens of Rome panicked, especially those who actually had precious posessions.
The Lacus Curtius in the Roman Forum today
Luckily, before any official requisitioning of gold or jewels could take place, Marcus Curtius claimed his fifteen minutes of fame, neatly anticipating  Andy Warhol’s famous pronouncement by two millennia. Announcing that nothing was more precious than a brave Roman, Curtius leaped into the chasm, together with his unfortunate horse, who had no say in the matter but doesn’t look best pleased.

Plaque at the Lacus Curtius
Hero or bloody idiot, take your pick, but either way, the chasm closed as promised. The wealthy citizens of Rome heaved a sigh of relief, named the lake, which appeared on the spot, Lacus Curtius, and resumed business as usual.  Over the centuries, the Forum was drained and paved, leaving only the small basin, which is still called the Lacus Curtius.

The Leap of Marcus Curtius by Veronese
The spectacular feat of Marcus Curtius has been the subject of many pictures, including this circular one by Veronese. It was also a favourite subject depicted on plates and bowls. Indeed, one such very attractive majolica dish, purchased through the Felton Bequest in 1940, can be seen in the NGV’s collection of decorative arts.

Majolica dish in the NGV collection
In 1842 Haydon began a huge painting of Marcus Curtius, over three metres in height, which is now at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter. The painting was indifferently received. Haydon made several smaller copies, which sold to friends. The one in the NGV is one such version. It was bought by Haydon’s patron Richard Twentyman, who, shortly after purchasing it, emigrated to Australia. It was then bought by Robert Allan and sold at auction to the NGV in 1897.
Benjamin Robert Haydon
The painter, Benjamin Robert Haydon, is a bit of a sad case. He yearned to paint grand historical pictures, but he was not successful at selling them. He was determined to force his idea of Heroic Art on a public that had moved on from that style of painting. They must be forced, scolded and lectured to admire it. He was too arrogant to adapt himself to the trend of public taste.

Benjamin Robert Haydon
Haydon was inclined to give the heroes in his pictures his own features, and Curtius is one such self-portrait. When the picture was first exhibited in 1843, it was poorly reviewed and even ridiculed by some. Haydon was indignant. He wrote in his journal: “I had a grey mare, which I kept leaping for two hours, – I sketched as he descended in the leap ...two men held up his legs & corn was put on the ground … I sketched his neck during the eating. After all this careful thought, comes a boyish critic with his black ribbon round his neck, ... and abuses the picture accordingly.”
He was always in financial strife, and on more than one occasion found himself in debtor’s prison. He was reluctantly forced to paint portraits to make ends meet. He was full of scorn and loathing for portraiture, feeling it was unworthy of him and his high ideals.

Marcus Curtius by Eustache de Sueur
He was extremely tactless, if not downright rude, in his dealings with patrons, which did not help his cause at all.  The Royal Academy did not give his work the accolades he thought it deserved. He did himself no favours by his vitriolic criticism of this august body, when a judicious bit of sucking up might have garnered his work a more sympathetic reception.

He was bitterly disillusioned when his proposed murals for the new Houses of Parliament were rejected in 1843. However, he tried to rise above the disappointment.  He would hold an exhibition of the rejected works, together with a few of his huge historical canvases. His masterpieces  would be seen and acclaimed by an appreciative public. He hired a room in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, in which to exhibit them.

General Tom Thumb
Meanwhile, General Tom Thumb, the three-foot tall celebrity midget and circus performer, was holding public “levéés” in another room of the Egyptian Hall. While large numbers of spectators crowded in to see this spectacle, very few looked in on Haydon’s exhibition.

The painter’s vanity was severely wounded. He wrote bitterly in his diary:  "21 April. Tom Thumb had 12,000 people last week. B. R. Haydon 133½ (the ½ a little girl). Exquisite taste of the English people!" To make matters worse, he attracted ridicule by abusing the public in the national press, contrasting his own superior merits with the vulgar crudeness of the people at large. (He would have called them a bunch of bogans had he known the word.)

The burden of his debts and his mortified vanity finally drove him to suicide.  Sadly, he got that wrong as well: after a botched attempt at shooting himself, he had to finish the job by cutting his throat. 

Marcus Curtius by Simon de Vos


Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The World of L.S. Lowry

Caroline went to Salford: this is what she saw there.
L.S.Lowry: Self-portrait
Think of Manchester, and you think of football, and factories. In fact, there is a thriving arts and cultural scene in Manchester, and echoing a global trend in docklands redevelopment there has been the recent construction of a major arts and entertainment complex in Salford Quays.
The complex, located in an area long considered one of the bleakest in Manchester, has been named the Lowry Centre, after one of Salford’s favourite sons, the artist Laurence Stephen (LS) Lowry. As well as theatres, concert halls and restaurants, the Lowry Centre Art Gallery is home to an excellent collection of local and contemporary art including a comprehensive permanent collection of paintings by LS Lowry.
To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Lowry until moving to Manchester, where he is very well known as one of their most famous local artists. My friend Gordon had been a fan of his work for some time, and when he came up north to visit me, he insisted we take a trip to the Lowry Gallery.
Matchstick men!” Gordon kept singing from the back of the minicab all the way to Salford Quays, “...and matchstick cats and dogs!”  – this had been a hit song by the duo Brian Burke and Michael Colman, commemorating the style of LS Lowry after his death in the late 1970s.
Life in Salford: football and factories 
Lowry was born in 1887 and was a prolific painter of life in Salford all his adult life.  Lowry’s interest in the urban and industrial landscape captured something quite unique. His signature “matchstick men” (marching to work in the factory, or gathered at the football ground) are indeed simplistic but in their sheer numbers make up a crowd heaving with life and movement.
One of his most famous paintings, Going to The Match, sold for 1.9 million pounds.
Going To The Match
What I found quite amazing was the way in which Lowry’s paintings of crowds or busy streets appear to give you a distance and vantage point that Lowry could never have had except for in his imagination.
Lowry’s father had emigrated from Ireland, and as a young man, Lowry worked as a clerk with a firm of accountants while attending the Municipal College of Art. He lived with his parents, and was to continue doing so for nearly forty years until the death of his mother.
Despite painting in Manchester almost exclusively, Lowry was a much celebrated British artist during his lifetime and received numerous honours (including election to the Royal Academy) for his contribution to recording of life in the industrial northwest of England. 
Lowry’s work is incredibly evocative of working class life in the industrial northwest, and the Lowry Centre Gallery strives to show this, with big windows all through the complex that look out onto chimneystacks and grey brick buildings that inevitably mirror an equally grey sky. All around you is Lowryland.

Although best known for Salford scenes of life and labour under dreary skies, I was also impressed by Lowry’s portraiture. He painted his subjects with a warmth that is obvious. There are many portraits that feature the recognisable face of a certain woman. As Lowry was never married, her identity is something of mystery – some suggest she was his mother (there have also been suggestions of an Oedipal obsession). Others suggest she was Carol-Ann Lowry, a girl who had written to him, excited when she found out she shared a name with a famous artist. They remained friends for years, and when Lowry died, he left his estate to her.
One of the paintings I liked the most was one called “The Bedroom”, painted at the his parents’ house where Lowry lived almost all his life, and for much of that with his bed ridden mother. The painting reminds me so much of that famous painting of Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles. The surroundings are simple, functional, sufficient – the unadorned surroundings of a man who lived alone after his mother’s death and dedicated himself to his art.
In retrospect, the work of LS Lowry is a record of the end of the industrial revolution in Britain, as well as a record of the living spirit of Manchester: factories, and football and a rich cultural life.
The Lowry Centre is well worth a visit, and you can read more about it as well as more about the life of LS Lowry here