27 March 2017


Why are we so in love with the past that we can't build for the present?

I walked round a new private housing estate in St Albans today that was not an imitation of past architectural styles but an imitation of an imitation.

The hung tiles, bays, dormer windows, small-paned windows, steep-pitched roofs, door styles and prominent chimneys are copied from not from vernacular architecture but from the Arts and Crafts copies of vernacular architecture. At the same time, the estate manages to be bland. With few exceptions, present-day housing is built in this twee toytown style. It has to be forced into modern building standards, modern ceiling heights, modern light standards, modern densities and with modern accommodation for cars, so it's not just twice false but thrice false. No other European country builds houses like this

Jonathan Meades traced this disease to Letchworth Garden City, which he said set the style for suburban domestic architecture until the Second World War, so that every street in England looks like Letchworth. He was not quite right: after three post-war decades, in which some attempts were made to build houses that looked as we had designed them and not our great-grandparents, the disease has come back. Hatfield New Town, which build for the present, now has a rash of Tudorbethan houses on the former British Aerospace site.

Of Letchworth Meades said:
"We walk forever down false memory lane, yearning for the place where the oak was beyond a joke, for the time when the quaintness was 100% proof. An Englishman's home is his fantasy. We're so inured to architectural escapism that we hardly acknowledge it. And we hardly stop to consider that the bucolic past that such houses represent was brutal, callous, cold, diseased, incestuous; and that our forebears spent much of their lives in pain."

This Romantic preoccupation with the past is the reason why we have still have a school system designed for Oxbridge entrance, why we can't train enough people for our economy, why industrial productivity is low, why we can't modernise our legislature, and why we want to leave Europe and return to the days of unregulated businesses that put children up chimneys. If we made these quaint housing estates with proper chimneys we might be able to do that again.

26 March 2017


The Unite for Europe March in London yesterday was determined but good-natured. Marches like this encourage humour and invention. There were some witty and creative signs carried by the protestors against Britain's leaving the European Union.

I had a chat with Grayson Perry, who was there with a Channel 4 film crew and trying to appear neutral. I suggested that he could transform these imaginative banners into a tapestry. He said he's working on some Brexit pots at the moment - they'll be displayed at the Serpentine Gallery in June.

Here are some of the banners we saw.

This lady came from Cadiz to demonstrate with a combined UK/Spanish flag. 
Photo: C.Till
Photo: C.Till
Photo: C.Till
Photo: C.Till
Photo: C.Till

21 March 2017


The great attraction of the Capodimonte museum in Naples is the Caravaggio Flagellation. Naples has three great paintings by the bad boy of art, which we had to see: The Flagellation, The Seven Acts of Mercy (in Pio Monte della Misericordia) and The Martyrdom of St Ursula (in the Gallery of Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, which makes a quiet escape from the hectic Via Toledo where it stands).

But in the Capodimonte, this picture of the Madonna and Child with St. John stood out. The artist is Raffaello dè Carli, also called Raffaellino del Garbo, a Florentine, 1466-1524.


I liked it and took the photo in poor light with my cheap camera, but it may be the best  you can find because, although it’s a lovely painting and although the artist is very good, I can’t find a good colour reproduction. (There's is a crisp black and white photo here.) It’s mentioned in Berenson’s Italian Pictures of the Renaissance, but I’m surprised it's not talked about more. The composition (never easy in the round) is successful and I like the lively postures of the figures, especially the heads of the Virgin and Child turned away from one another.

Vasari says of Raffaello that, when he was a little boy, he
“... was called by the pet name of Raffaellino, which he retained ever afterwards; and in his earliest days he gave such promise in his art, that he was already numbered among the most excellent masters, a thing which happens to few. But still fewer meet the fate which afterwards came upon him, in that from a splendid beginning and almost certain hopes, he arrived at a very feeble end.” 
He trained with Filippo Lippi, who thought Raffaellino was a better painter than he was. You may agree. The Madonna and Child with St John was painted about 1500, in his early thirties, obviously at the height of his powers.

So why do we know so much more about Filippo than Raffaellino?  The explanation may be in his final years. Of his end, Vasari writes
“Raffaellino was unfortunate in his connections, for he always mixed with poor and humble people, like a man who had sunk and become ashamed of himself, seeing that in his youth he had given such great promise, and now knew how distant he was from the extraordinary excellence of the works that he had made at that time. And thus, growing old, he fell away so much from his early standard, that his works no longer appeared to be by his hand; and forgetting his art more and more every day, he was reduced to painting, in addition to his usual panels and pictures, the meanest kinds of works. And he sank so low that everything was a torment to him, but above all his burdensome family of children, which turned all his ability in art into mere clumsiness. Wherefore, being overtaken by infirmities and impoverished, he finished his life in misery at the age of fifty-eight, and was buried in S. Simone, at Florence, by the Company of the Misericordia, in the year 1524.”

17 March 2017


Everything about this picture is right: the colours in both foreground and background, the out-of-focus background, the impracticality of Björk's clothing (which redeems the crochet from its awful 1970s associations), her posture, the asymmetry in her dress, hair and eye makeup.  The asymmetric makeup perfects the picture. The human face is asymmetrical and pictures of faces doctored to make them look symmetrical are worrying. Exaggerations of their natural asymmetry are pleasing.

The evil Zorg, Luc Besson's creation in The Fifth Element, played by Gary Oldman (above), with his radically asymmetric hairstyle, would have looked more menacing with a centre parting.  That may be what Blake meant by "fearful symmetry". If not fearful, symmetry is uncanny - here is Björk again

It's thought that biological asymmetry arises from the accumulation of genetic and environmental pressures in human development. The perception that perfect symmetry is uncanny may be a sense that a perfect face cannot be human. Perfect human replicas appear to be almost but not exactly like human beings, and are unpleasant to look at. There is supposed to be a zone between the obviously non-human and the obviously human - the so-called uncanny valley - that elicits this disquiet. The metal robot C3PO was charming, but humanoid robots are creepy. This perfect actroid is in the uncanny valley.

Conversely, the face decorations illustrated in Hans Sylvester's Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration in Africa, (below) are asymmetrical and also have a disregard for precision, which has a comparably pleasing effect. They appeal not as primitive but as human. 

10 March 2017


The Dulwich Picture Gallery manages its small size and off-centre location well with appropriate and popular exhibitions. Its Ravilious show last year was perfectly suited to the building and its current exhibition of paintings and designs by Vanessa Bell fills a similar slot.

VANESSA BELL (1879-1961)
8 February 2017 to 4 June 2017
10am - 5pm, Tuesday - Sunday (Closed Mondays except Bank Holidays)
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Gallery Road
SE21 7AD

Bloomsbury is endlessly popular, cautiously modern and very English despite its connection with French painting of the early 20th century. Virginia Woolf said that after Roger Fry's 1910 exhibition of French Post-Impressionists the world was never quite the same. Bell was gripped by Post-Impressionism.  In this exhibition we see a collection of accomplished portraits, still lifes and landscapes dating from about 1910 until the 1950s. There is also reference to Bell's interior design, textiles and pottery, to which her decorative style was well adapted and which I would have liked to see more of. Photographs and letters illuminate the creative life of Charleston Farmhouse.

I wrote in another post about Bell's cautious modernism and how, once she had discovered Post Impressionism, she never looked forward. This exhibition confirms her artistic stasis. What she painted in 1954 was hardly different from what she painted in 1914. There were tentative forays into Cubism, but without conviction. Surrealism might never have happened. Nor within her chosen style could I discern artistic doubt, exploration or self-criticism. Despite her early adoption of the art of the avant garde, she became a comfortable artist of the arrière garde. That may be excused by the fact that her whole life was a work of art. She made Charleston the hub of Bloomsbury, brought up a family and always had a house full of brilliant guests. And so she gives the impression of happily painting away without much curiosity about what was going on elsewhere.

Bloomsbury is popular with the English middle class because it is the image of the free artistic and intellectual life that they cannot have. Virginia Woolf is one of the greatest of 20th century English novelists and Maynard Keynes was one of the greatest intellects. But their visual art did not develop and their Bohemianism does not attract me. It depended on servants, it was shot through with anti-Semitism and a self-centred pacifism. Angelica Garnett writes of a Bloomsbury childhood that left her pretty screwed up.

If you would like a more sympathetic view of Vanessa Bell, here is co-curator Ian Dejardin, talking about her abstract designs of the 1910s.