Giovanni Battista Moroni – Royal Academy of Arts

The second exhibition I saw on Sunday was Giovanni Battista Moroni at the Royal Academy. I had never heard of this Renaissance artist before, but I found myself admiring his pictures greatly.

Moroni was the son of a stonemason and was born in Albino, north Italy, in the 1520s. During his lifetime he was acclaimed as the leading painter in Bergamo, but his reputation has fluctuated over the centuries.

Moroni preferred to paint with a representation of reality rather than create artificial, idealised portraits. As a result his pictures have insight and presence. Some portraitists of the era produced what, to me, appear as not-very-interesting pictures of the nobility, but Moroni’s paintings are different. I particularly liked his Portrait of a Lateran Canon (c. 1558) – the canon looks at the viewer with a wry smile, which led me to wonder what he was thinking! Another interesting picture is the Portrait of a Tailor (c. 1570), in which the tailor in question is full of personality.

This is a really fascinating exhibition which is definitely worth seeing. It runs until the 25th of January.

Late Turner: Painting Set Free – Tate Britain

I was supposed to be meeting a friend on Sunday, but she couldn’t make it, so I decided to go to a couple of exhibitions instead. The first was Late Turner: Painting Set Free at Tate Britain.

The exhibition covers J.M.W. Turner’s work between 1835 and his death in 1851. I adore Turner and thoroughly enjoyed looking at his later works, which give the lie to the concept that old age automatically has to mean settling down into a reactionary retirement. Turner continued to experiment and push the boundaries well into his last years, despite derision and misunderstanding from his contemporaries.

One of my favourite paintings is Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway (1844), which is just incredible, with the train rushing towards you, the sense of movement clear within the picture. I loved seeing it here. I also loved the Roman and classical-inspired pictures with their beautiful landscapes, as well as the watercolours of the burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons. Another favourite was Peace: Burial at Sea (1842) – I thought the light on the water was beautiful.

This exhibition is brilliant, and strongly recommended – but it can get crowded, so I would suggest trying to go at a quiet time if possible.

Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy – National Portrait Gallery

I went to see Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy at the National Portrait Gallery last Friday after work. This exhibition aims to explore the life and ideas of Morris, who was an artist, writer, socialist and visionary thinker.

The exhibition was interesting, but I thought it focused too little on Morris himself and too much on his contemporaries and those whom he inspired. Books, ceramics and artworks by people such as Eric Gill, Terence Conran and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were interesting in their own right but moved the focus away from Morris. I did like how the exhibition highlighted Morris’ concept of “art for the people” and his Socialist sympathies.

Overall, a good exhibition to visit if you want an overview of William Morris’s life, contemporaries and followers, but not if you are particularly interested in Morris himself.

My top five literary locations in the UK

A few days ago, a Buzzfeed article on “19 British Places All Book Lovers Must Visit” prompted my friend Rachel to write about five of her own favourite literary hotspots. I have shamelessly stolen her idea and would like to present a list of my own. Partly this is to get over my feelings of embarrassment at having been to hardly any of the sites in the original list: despite spending four years of my adult life in Yorkshire, I never did get around to visiting the Brontë Parsonage Museum, and although I visited the town of Glastonbury earlier this year, I was too lazy to walk to the top of the Tor. Look, I have been to some literary places, honest!

Newstead Abbey

Newstead Abbey
Newstead Abbey

In my late teens/early twenties I was completely obsessed with Lord Byron, and just after I finished my degree at York I made the pilgrimage to his old home near Nottingham. Newstead Abbey is a beautiful place in its own right, but knowing that Byron himself mused, wrote poetry and quaffed wine from a skull within its walls makes it even more special to me. Nowadays Byron’s fame seems to be ebbing, with greater focus on his computer-pioneer daughter Ada Lovelace (who, to be fair, is pretty awesome), but I will always have a place in my heart for the poet who was “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. While some of Byron’s poetry isn’t great, when he is good, he is very, very good. I love Don Juan.

Fitzrovia, London

The Fitzroy Tavern
The Fitzroy Tavern

With the centenary of Dylan Thomas’ birth this year, I am surprised Fitzrovia didn’t make it into the list. This area in Bloomsbury was a magnet for artists and writers in the mid-20th century, who spent lots of time hanging out in the local pubs. Thomas is perhaps the most famous of these: he drank in the Fitzroy Tavern and met his wife Caitlin in the nearby Wheatsheaf. However, the area was also frequented by other significant figures: Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, witnessed an altercation in the Duke of York which may have found its way into his novel, while the nearby Newman Arms was supposedly George Orwell’s inspiration for the plebians’ pub in 1984.

If you would like to explore the area further, I recommend the London Literary Pub Crawl: this tour begins at the Fitzroy Tavern and ends in nearby Soho, with numerous beer breaks along the way.

South Tyneside

Catherine Cookson Country
Photo: Denise Miller on Flickr

Growing up in the North East of England, I was familiar with the works of Catherine Cookson, the most borrowed author from public libraries for 17 years until 2002. Like many teenagers from the area I grew up reading many of her books, including The Cinder Path and The Branded Man, which were inspired by and set in the region. I’m not sure how popular Cookson is these days, but her hometown of South Shields and the entire Tyneside region still has the “gritty” atmosphere I associate with her books. Further south in County Durham, the open-air Beamish Museum will be recognisable to anyone who has ever watched a Cookson adaptation on television.

Rose Theatre, Bankside, London

Excavation of the Rose Theatre, Bankside, London
Photo: David Sim on Flickr

The reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on Bankside is a well-known attraction, and it is certainly worth visiting. However, the lesser-known Rose Theatre just down the road is a must-see for anyone interested in Shakespeare and his contemporaries. It was discovered in 1989 during a routine excavation underneath an office block: a campaign to save it was successful, and it has been preserved ever since. The foundations are kept under water to preserve them, and red rope lights mark out the shape of the walls and the stage.

When it was built, the Rose was the first purpose-built theatre on Bankside, and plays are still performed there today, on a platform overlooking the archaeological site.

The Isle of Wight

Freshwater Bay
Freshwater Bay, the Isle of Wight

The Isle of Wight has connections with two of my favourite (albeit completely different) writers. Victorian poet Lord Alfred Tennyson lived at Farringford House in the west of the island for many years, and walked every day on Tennyson Down, which was subsequently named after him. He also wrote one of his most famous poems, ‘Crossing the Bar’, while on a ferry crossing the Solent.

Virginia Woolf wrote her only play, Freshwater, about her great-aunt, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. The play is set in Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater, not far from Tennyson Down and Farringford, and it is still possible to visit Dimbola, which is now a museum and art gallery dedicated to Cameron.

Also, if this isn’t enough reason to visit the Isle of Wight, the fact that you can go there by hovercraft should be enough to convince you.

Bonus site: Scarborough

Anne Brontë's grave
Me, as a student, by Anne Brontë’s grave

The Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough might not be an obvious choice for someone looking for places with literary connections, but while the Parsonage Museum in Haworth is the main focus for Brontë aficionados, Scarborough has a claim to fame of its own, as the burial place of youngest Brontë sibling Anne. When she began to show symptoms of the tuberculosis that had killed her brother and sister, Anne travelled to Scarborough with her only remaining sister, Charlotte. Sadly, Anne died there and is buried in St Mary’s burial ground.

If there’s one thing that the Buzzfeed list, Rachel’s choices and my own experiences have shown me, it is that Britain is absolutely chock-full of literary places. I had a really hard time narrowing my own choices down to five, and there are still plenty of places that I haven’t seen. Maybe a trip to Haworth will be on the cards next year?

Germany: memories of a nation – British Museum

Germany: memories of a nation is another exhibition at the British Museum; I visited after I went to see the museum’s exhibition on China. The exhibition is billed as a 600-year history in objects, but it is more than that: each object reveals something about the culture and history of the nation that has only existed in its current form since the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago. Germany has an incredibly complex political history – it used to be divided into regions under the umbrella of the Holy Roman Empire, and was not unified until 1870, after which two World Wars and the division between East and West further shaped the Germany we know today.

The exhibition began with a superb display of the contrast between England and Germany during the eighteenth century. When England was developing a standardised system of coinage – represented by the single coin bearing an image of Queen Anne – Germany had several different currencies and monetary systems. I was fascinated by the objects on display, including art by Dürer and Holbein, a beautiful and ornate model of a ship holding several Electors and the Holy Roman Emperor, and an amazing Bauhaus cradle. More poignantly, a (replica) gate from a World War II concentration camp was displayed, and no exhibition inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall would be complete without a piece of the Wall itself. I really enjoyed this exhibition – it tells a fascinating and complex story through the medium of objects, and there should be something here to appeal to everybody.

Ming: 50 years that changed China – British Museum

Ming: 50 years that changed China is an exhibition at the British Museum which explores the years between 1400 and 1450 and how, during this time, China’s Ming dynasty established Beijing as the country’s capital and encouraged developments in culture and trade. It began by exploring the five emperors to rule in this period, and went on to look at the innovations of the period including architecture (the famous Forbidden City was constructed during this time), painting, sculpture and travel. I was amazed at the beautiful objects on display, particularly the stunning Cloisonné jar that has appeared on all the promotional material, and the hanging scroll with a picture of the Imperial palace.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

As today, 11 November, is Remembrance Day, I thought this post would be appropriate.


Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is the now-famous installation in the Tower of London’s moat. It has been created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, with setting by stage designer Tom Piper, and consists of 888, 246 ceramic poppies, each of which has been individually hand made, which have been planted in the moat by volunteers over the last couple of months. The first poppy was planted on 17 July and the installation officially opened on 5 August – the date of Britain’s entry into World War I. The last was planted this morning – Armistice Day. The number of poppies is significant – each one represents the death of a British or Commonwealth soldier during the war.


In an attempt to avoid the crowds, I got up super early on Monday morning and headed to the Tower before work. A surprising number of people had had the same idea, though things had apparently much improved from the weekend, when, so my friend told me, there were queues to get down to the walkway and some footpaths had to be closed. Though it was far from quiet, I still managed to get to the front and see everything I wanted to.

Though I had seen many photographs of the installation, pictures are no substitute for seeing it in real life – it makes even more of an impact. Looking at the sea of poppies and knowing that every single one represents a person, each with their own life and with family and friends who were left behind to mourn, is breathtakingly sad.

The installation is beautiful, but I don’t think this detracts from the seriousness of the subject. In many respects it is a very simple idea, but it works wonderfully: the poppy is a well-known symbol of Remembrance Day and is widely associated with the First World War, while the arrangement of poppies “spilling” out of the tower and into the moat represents the blood that was shed by those who died.


There have been criticisms levelled at the installation, notably this Guardian piece by Jonathan Jones. I think it makes some good points – for instance, he asks why we should only memorialise our own dead and not the casualties of all countries, and suggests that the poppy has become a political symbol rather than a focus on the dead of World War I. However, I think it’s understandable that a British commemoration based at the Tower of London would focus on national casualties, just as a village or town might choose to focus on the local dead. In practical terms, the moat is pretty full – there wouldn’t be any room for more poppies to represent the horrendously high number of the dead beyond Britain. I also think that by focusing on a precise number of World War I dead, the installation brings the focus of the poppy back to the 1914-18 conflict.

From today, the installation will slowly begin to be taken down. I highly recommend trying to visit before it goes – it’s an unforgettable experience. However, go early in the morning if you can, to avoid the crowds!


Burning News: recent art from Russia – Hayward Gallery

Burning News: recent art from Russia is an exhibition in the Hayward Gallery‘s Project Space. It actually closed on Sunday, but I managed to pay it a visit before then.

The exhibition consisted of sculpture and photography by Aslan Gaisumov and Tim Parchikov, as well as videos by Evgeny Granilshchikov, Mikhail Maksimov, Sasha Pirogova and Dimitri Venkov. There was an interesting variety of work on show, and I’m not sure it was really my thing (except for the burning of the newspapers), but it was a thought-provoking way to pass some time.

The Big Reunion Boy Band Tour

Another year, another Big Reunion concert, this time the Boy Band Tour. I went to see this at Newcastle Arena with some friends and we had a great time, although sadly the venue was not full.

It was great to see 911, Blue and 5ive again (although 5ive are sadly now down to “3hree”) – 911 in particular were great, and I can’t believe Jimmy and Spike can still handle those dance moves. I was particularly excited about seeing A1, who were not in the last tour. ‘Same Old Brand New You’ is a BRILLIANT pop song and my friend and I have been humming it for a year solid, so it was great to finally see it live.

I wasn’t too bothered about Damage or 3T – the guys seemed lovely and they can certainly sing, but I didn’t recognise any of their songs (except for Damage’s final track) and they were all dull ballads in any case. 5th Story, on the other hand, were a treat – a “supergroup” made up of solo singers and band members, all of who were one- or two-hit wonders and who were brought together for the second series of BR. Kenzie from Blazin’ Squad, Dane Bowers from Another Level, Gareth Gates of Pop Idol fame, singer Kavana, and teen heartthrob Adam Rickitt made up the quintet – the group’s rendition of former Corrie star Adam Rickitt’s hit ‘I Breathe Again’ was a particular highlight. The gig ended with all of the bands coming on stage to sing Gates’ hit, a cover of ‘Spirit in the Sky’, which I always thought was an odd choice (British pop star singing about Jesus?!) but it proved a cheering finish.

Concert finale