Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Books | The Vanishing Man by Laura Cumming

"The painting I saw that day seems to hold death back from the brink even as it acknowledges our shared human fate. [...] Because of Velázquez, these long-lost people will always be there at the heart of the Prado, always waiting for us to arrive; they will never go away, as long as we are there to hold them in sight. Las Meninas is like a chamber of the mind, a place where the dead will never die. The gratitude I feel to Velázquez for this greatest of paintings is untold: he gave me the consolation to return to my own life."
(Cumming, Laura: The Vanishing Man. In Pursuit of Velázquez, Vintage, London 2016, p.4)

"The truth of life, the mortal truth of our brief walk in the sun, has to be set down in a flash of brilliant brushstrokes that are themselves on the verge of dissolution. The picture, the person, the life: all are here now, but on the edge of disappearing. It is the very definition of the human condition."
(ibid., p.264)

Velázquez's Las Meninas is my favourite painting, so I was thrilled to see Laura Cumming (whose book A Face to the World, about self portraits, blew me away) publish this gem of a book. It is the true story of a 19th-century bookseller's obsession with a portrait that led him into ruin, and a paean to Velázquez's genius, exploring the extraordinary humanity and dignity of his paintings, his deep respect for all his subjects.

So much has been written about Las Meninas, but Cumming adds her unique vision to all the voices. I felt a particular affinity with the genesis of this book, which was triggered by grief over the author's father's death, but the way Cumming weaves the universal truth of life and death into her story of this and other paintings is bound to move anybody reading her book. Cumming's life was changed by Velázquez and so was John Snare's (the bookseller), and The Vanishing Man has a lot to say about how we are affected by art, which of course we never perceive in a vacuum.

Las Meninas isn't the painting at the heart of this story, but it is a vital part and appears throughout the book, which combines (art) history, mystery, a double-biography and psychology in an intriguing blend of non-fiction. Both the bookseller John Snare and Velázquez are elusive figures, yet Cumming manages to bring them to life, and their presence in this world, which she conjures so beautifully and with such love and empathy, continues to haunt me long after finishing the book.

Here is a short video of Laura Cumming talking about the book.

Monday, November 20, 2017


The garden at Charleston

 The pond

 The front of the house, with bonus bearded man

  Walking across fields of gold from Charleston to Berwick Church

 Berwick Church

 Killer colour combo in Lewes

This summer, when we were in London for a wedding, we added on a night in Lewes at the beginning of the weekend, so we could visit Charleston, the country home the painter Vanessa Bell rented for decades, which was frequented by other members of the Bloomsbury Group, including John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey and Roger Fry (and of course Bell's sister Virginia Woolf), as a temporary home, meeting place and refuge.

In Lewes we stayed in this lovely B&B, run by an artist. Our bedroom had a jasmine bush trailing outside the window, so this place ticked all the boxes and more and was the perfect prelude to our day trip.

I am fascinated by the Bloomsbury Set and am working my way through their oeuvres and their biographies. Years ago I bought two hefty volumes by and about Virginia Woolf, respectively, and more recently it has been the painters in the circle that have caught my attention. I left the museum shop at Charleston with Angelica Garnett's honest memoir about growing up as the daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (for the first 17 years of her life she thought Clive Bell was her father) and a card of this dog, as I love long-nosed animals and the story behind this one.

We did a guided tour of the house, which was a good introduction (photos of the interior can be found on the website in the first link above), but the next time I would like to go on a Sunday, when there is a volunteer in each room and people can wander around at their own pace. The house is a treasure trove not only of all the artworks (both by inhabitants of the house and by artists they collected), but also of the idiosyncratic Charleston interior design by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. While my tastes are more minimalist, their style works so harmoniously, and on our return to Ireland I did feel the urge to decorate the panels of our doors and create my own wallpaper and fabric.

After the tour we spent some time in the beautiful cottage garden (my day job involves working closely with the University art collection, which includes this painting by Roger Fry - it was exciting to see the pond in real life) and then walked the forty minutes or so across the fields to Berwick Church, which has murals painted by Bell and Grant and Bell's son Quentin. We had dinner and drinks sitting in the beer garden of a nearby pub (we were very lucky with the weather) before getting a taxi back to Lewes, which is worth visiting in itself.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Natural beauty: Hair, skin, eye make-up

The less time I spend in shops, the less frazzled I feel, so I love finding things that work and sticking to them. Unfortunately, with hair care, the perfect product eludes me, and it may well be true that it is necessary to switch products every now and again anyway. Since I try to use only natural beauty products, this criterion narrows down the choice, thus simplifying the process, but of course that also means fewer options. On the rare occasion that I use non-natural products, my hair looks and feels better, but this is short-lived, and I would rather not use shampoo and conditioner with a long list of questionable ingredients. In that sense I am happy to pay the price in the form of sub-optimal hair.

I finished up the Trilogy shampoo and conditioner and don't think I will repurchase, as they did not do much for my frizzy hair. The castile soap I use for many of the 18 uses listed I haven't trialled for long enough on my hair, but according to my sister, the result is not satisfactory.

Now I am using Sukín, and so far, so good. My hair feels more manageable, though I got it cut shortly after I started using Sukín, so that is probably a contributing factor.

My Green Angel moisturiser was running low, and while I loved it, especially the jasmine and neroli scent, I had always wanted to try Egyptian Magic, which is all-purpose and therefore satisfies the minimalist in me (I also like Trilogy's Everything Balm). It is practically scent-free (the ingredients are honey, beeswax, olive oil, royal jelly, bee pollen and bee propolis), and while it doesn't sink into the skin completely, I have been applying it during the day (some people only use it at night for this reason) and haven't noticed an unwelcome oily sheen. You can also use it as a lip balm and on your hair and in numerous other ways. Daisy the cat has skin cancer on her nose, which manifests as a permanent scab-wound-scab cycle, and apparently some pet owners used Egyptian Magic successfully to make the scab disappear, so we might give it a go.

Going natural with make-up means I can avoid all the make-up counters and the accompanying indecision and just buy the products in a health food shop, where choice is definitely limited. I was out of both eyeliner and mascara and got Lavera for both. The eyeliner is probably the best I have ever had, and I don't have strong opinions on mascara. This one, while not giving an awful lot of volume, is great for everyday use.

I would prefer to use Irish products where possible and will look into it, and I will buy from Green Angel (the only Irish company mentioned here) again, but I think Egyptian Magic, like castile soap, is here to stay.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Drawing | Book without words

This week I redrew all the images for the book about my nephew and Branwell the cat in 0.1 fineliner on larger sheets of paper. This will be a book without words, and I am keeping it quite minimalist, using the black-and-white of Branwell as inspiration.

I have also started work on two new books and am wrapping up another one, all with an eye on the end of the year, although that is of course a completely arbitrary deadline.

Meanwhile my share of garden tasks has been woefully neglected, even though the workload is much smaller at this time of the year. I can appreciate the beauty in the austerity of a winter garden and the cycle of life, and at times I manage a Buddhist equanimity about the pointlessness of human endeavour, but part of me is sad to see so much of the effort we put into the garden torn out or disappear, and I feel exhausted at the thought of having to start all over again.

This year I have shed several things - responsibilities, some part-time work, hobbies - that were taking up time, in order to prioritise my work and the people in my life, but nothing is set in stone. One of the pastimes I gave up is knitting and crocheting, but now, with the darker evenings, and inspired by a book my sister gave us, I want to start the large-scale, no-thinking-required project I have been meaning to make, a moss-stitch blanket. I just haven't found the right type of yarn yet (knowing my taste for luxury wool, this blanket will end up costing me an arm and a leg!).

Monday, October 30, 2017

Contentment - reading and a good day's work

‘Now I close the door and return to my life a little tired but also with that modest contentment and gratitude of those who enjoy their work. This must be boring to read, as there is really no drama. The deeper I am in this routine, the better things are. My appetite for music, film, books, paintings and the people I care about increases. I have never understood why.’ 
Writer Hisham Matar on his working day in a recent Guardian Review

I had kept the cutting of that feature, as, far from boring to read, it articulates that feeling of quiet satisfaction we have after a good day's work and how our 'appetite' for other things is stimulated by said feeling and the routine that enables it.

Another cutting I had in my folder was an interview with writer Lucy Hughes-Hallett, in which she said the following about novels, so pertinent in today's political landscape:

‘I think getting inside other people’s heads, even if they are imaginary people, is very important. One life isn’t enough and when things start to go really bad politically is when people forget to see the other side’s point of view. That’s the way in which fiction can be useful.’ Guardian Review, 13 May 2017

Hughes-Hallett wrote her first novel at age 65 (having previously written non-fiction, including The Pike, about Gabriele D'Annunzio). I find mid- and late-life forays into new territory inspiring and reassuring - it is never too late to begin something.

The only painting I have done in the last couple of weeks was a few brushstrokes on the above painting by my nephew, a portrait of Daisy the cat (who refused to pose with it), but while I am itching to get back to the easel, other work has been fulfilling, and I have cleared time and space for projects I want to complete in the next few months. 

One day each week or fortnight is dedicated to new-house tasks (it feels weird to say that after over two years, but there is still so much to do) and gardening (we harvested the last tomatoes,courgettes and potatoes and cleared most of the polytunnel this week), and there have been impromptu day trips (to Inis Meáin, where I lay on a rock in the sun in an attempt to sleep off a migraine that had started on the boat and enjoyed it thoroughly, despite the lingering pain) and events and of course my day job. So time in the studio has been limited, but I am making the most of those moments.

And I have been reading more than ever. Twice in the last month I read a book in a day (a rare luxury, admittedly). I got Josephine Hart's The Reconstructionist in the library. Damage is one of my favourite books, and this one is as good. I love her raw, haunting writing style. I finished Shirley Jackson's biography (a brick of a book I nearly bought in London, even though I only had hand luggage), which was a fascinating insight into the mind that conceived such unsettling glimpses into the human psyche, and am dipping in and out of Frances Borzello's book on women's self portraits, so as to savour it. I also bought Siri Hustvedt's latest collection of essays.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

In the wonderful world of picturebooks

 From Beatrice Alemagna's What is a Child?

A page from Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton - note the fair trade symbol on Harris's bag

 Collages and one of the final illustrations for Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton

 From A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna

Collage workshop

A little visitor enjoying the children's artwork

This week I have been guiding tours and workshops for the Baboró exhibition 'A World of Colour' in the O'Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance at NUI Galway. This show was curated by Sarah Webb and features artwork by two of my favourite illustrators, Beatrice Alemagna and Chris Haughton, so I am in my element.

Alongside their work there is a growing gallery wall/window of photographs the lovely volunteer and I take of the amazing collages the children make (they can take the originals home, and we tell them it is a process similar to how the books were made). The children's creativity and their responses to the illustrations blow me away.

 I wrote a piece about the exhibition here.