2015 Reading Challenge – A book based entirely on its cover


The cover of Mr Sparks by Danny Weston caught my eye as I walked into the library. It seems to be a children’s book, but it’s entertaining and slightly creepy nonetheless – the titular Mr Sparks is a ventriloquist’s dummy with a voice – and a mind – of its own.

Penny Black 175 – British Postal Museum and Archive

I had some free time during my day off yesterday so nipped in to the British Postal Museum and Archive, now preparing for its move to larger premises next year, to take a look at the Penny Black 175 exhibition. This celebrates the 175th anniversary of the introduction of this iconic postage stamp, the world’s first.

The exhibition is small, but informative, exploring how the Penny Black (and its lesser-known counterpart for slightly heavier mail, the Twopenny Blue) was introduced in 1840 as a way of simplifying the postal system and enabling more people than ever before to send letters. A sheet of these stamps was displayed, which was interesting to see for someone like me who is very interested in Victorian history.

The Penny Black Copyright: Culture24

Goya: The Portraits – National Gallery

I’d heard of the Spanish artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, more commonly known as Goya, because of his powerful war paintings, but this new exhibition at the National Gallery shows another side to him. Goya: The Portraits encompasses the artist’s career in portraiture, from his earliest work to his final years. The exhibition contains 70 works, made up of paintings, drawings and miniatures.

I enjoyed the exhibition: I thought some works were better than others, but they all had Goya’s unique style and power. I was particularly interested in the self-portraits, most notably the “Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta” (1820) in which Goya pays tribute to the medical man who saved his life when he was stricken with a serious illness. The picture shows an ill-looking Goya prostrate in bed, attended by the doctor, while shadowy figures – possibly harbingers of death, or waiting to give the last rites – lurk in the shadows. I also thought that the artist’s family pictures, including the sensitive portrait of his wife, Josefa Bayeu de Goya and his final portrait, an image of his beloved grandson Mariano Goya y Goicoechea, were rather touching.

I thought it very impressive how Goya managed to stay in favour for so much of his life, given the tumults within Spanish society. From an established portrait painter to the Spanish aristocracy, he became the official portrait painter to the Spanish court, and yet when the 1808 popular uprising led to conflict between the existing royal family and the French emperor Napoleon, he managed to keep his position, painting all sorts of powerful figures. I hadn’t previously known that a serious illness in his mid-40s left him almost totally deaf: his portraits became a way for him to communicate with his sitters.

I sometimes find looking at portraits to be a bit boring – there’s only so many times you can gaze with interest at powerful figures posing in beautiful outfits – but Goya’s grasp of psychology and his unusual style made these pictures genuinely fascinating for me. The exhibition runs in the Sainsbury Wing until 10 January.

Ai Weiwei – Royal Academy of Arts


I was interested to see the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts: despite not being the biggest fan of modern art in general, this particular artist is well known for his commentary on censorship, the Chinese government and human rights. He first became well-known in Britain in 2010 when his sunflower seeds installation was present in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, but this is the first major survey in the UK.

The exhibition was curated in collaboration with Weiwei, and covers the period from 1993, when he returned to China, until the present day. Some works have been created specifically for the RA.

I genuinely wasn’t sure what I would make of this exhibition, but I found it a worthwhile experience, getting me to think about the issues Weiwei raises in his work. I liked the way that contemporary Chinese society was juxtaposed with ancient culture.

Consisting largely of big installation pieces, on a first glance there isn’t a whole lot to look at in the exhibition, but in fact I thought the works had a surprising depth. The free audio guide definitely helped me find my way through the pieces. This n represents a map of China.


Another consisted of leftover wood arranged incredibly neatly, with pieces of ancient temple buried among the pile.


I was impressed by this stool sculpture. These works are apparently useful objects intentionally made useless, ancient artefacts modified by modern craftsmen, commenting on China’s past and present.

These tables were bizarre – quirky, but interesting. The craftsmanship is clearly evident, both in the pieces themselves and in the way they have been reshaped.

This work, consisting of material from collapsed buildings, represents the Szechuan earthquake of 2008, and the panels on the wall bear the names of those who died. Many of these were children, the details suppressed by the authorities as they did not want to admit that the materials for building schools had been skimped on.

This sculpture is made from material taken from an arts centre that Weiwei built, and that was forcibly demolished shortly afterwards.

This impressive sculpture also represents China.

This field is made of marble.

The marble buggy was created after Weiwei had an unpleasant experience of surveillance while he was out walking his son in his buggy.

I liked the room of cubes. This crystal one took a long time to create.

This one was based on a traditional kind of Chinese box.

This cube is made entirely of tea leaves.

This one is solid metal.

This map of China is made of porcelain.

These handcuffs are made of jade.

These bones might look real, but they are actually porcelain.

I really liked this wallpaper, which looks ornate and pretty but actually consists of handcuffs, CCTV cameras and the Twitter logo.

This set of boxes contain scale models of Ai Weiwei’s rooms while he was under house arrest and being watched constantly by two soldiers. Each has a window in the side and an opening on the top.

Weiwei has modelled himself and two soldiers in each model.

Finally, this chandelier looks fairly traditional from a distance, but close up you realise that it is, in fact, made of bicycles.

As I said, I wasn’t sure if I would be impressed by this exhibition but I really was. In all honesty, I was probably swayed by the knowledge that Weiwei had been placed under house arrest and come under scrutiny from the Chinese authorities – his art must be important for them to act in this way. Wrong or right, I did find myself thinking seriously about all of these works and they are still on my mind now.

The exhibition runs until 13 December. The Royal Academy is open every day, including late opening on Friday.

Victorian London in Photographs – London Metropolitan Archives


I wanted to visit the Victorian London in Photographs exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives, which I became aware of thanks to The Exhibitionologist’s excellent review. The LMA is open late several nights a week, so I headed down after work.

The exhibition consists of selected images from the LMA collections, photographs taken in the nineteenth century from 1839, when photography first arrived in London. Though small, it is a rich collection, consisting of portraits and street scenes, people at work and at leisure. One of my favourite sections consisted of actors and actresses, including Henry Irving and William Terriss, the latter murdered outside the Adelphi stage door by a disgruntled actor. Another was a collection of images of orphan boys, taken before they left for Canada to start new lives. Yet another poignant collection was made up of inmates of the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum.

Less personal, but equally interesting, pictures covered the Crystal Palace, the construction of the Metropolitan Railway, and the Blackwall Tunnel. The earliest images captured ancient inns, roadways and other buildings which had grown up since the Great Fire, and which are no longer around. We have the Society for Photographing Old Relics of London to thank for this: founded in 1875, they could not stop the demolition of these beautiful old buildings in the name of “progress”, but they could, and did, capture them on camera.

Many buildings from the Victorian period were destroyed in the Blitz, and new construction means that modern-day London looks very different from its Victorian counterpart, as two contrasting images taken from the same spot demonstrate. However, there are still recognisable elements to be seen in the pictures, and these clear, crisp images seem to bring the past even closer. A fantastic, free exhibition that is well worth a visit.


London Metropolitan Archives
40 Northampton Road

2015 Reading Challenge – A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

I really wasn’t sure what book to pick for this, as I read all the books I was supposed to when I was at school. Therefore, I did a bit of Googling to find out other books that some people read at school, and came across Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. I liked it – it was a very powerful story.

Barbican Conservatory

I’d been meaning to visit the Barbican‘s Conservatory for a while. The second biggest conservatory in London, it is an oasis of calm, full of greenery to counteract the grey concrete, and incredibly relaxing. It is only open on certain Sundays, which is a shame, but on the plus side it provides the opportunity to enjoy a calming couple of hours on the weekend.

The Conservatory contains tropical fish and over 2,000 species of tropical plants and trees. It is warm and humid but there is a also a drier room full of cacti. There are some lovely flowers too. The Conservatory, which is above the theatre, was opened at the time of the original building and there are some interesting photographs of how it looked then. Definitely worth a visit.


Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon – National Portrait Gallery


I visited the National Portrait Gallery at the weekend to see the exhibition Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon. It covered the life of the actress and fashion icon Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) from her early years training for the ballet through her film career and ending with her humanitarian work.

The exhibition was interesting and comprised images by photographers such as Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Terry O’Neill, Norman Parkinson and Irving Penn. The pictures conveyed Hepburn’s beauty, charm and style over several decades. I was surprised, however, that it was so small – there were only a couple of rooms and it didn’t take me long to go through it.

London Lit Weekend: Trollope at 200 – King’s Place

As part of London Lit Weekend I visited King’s Place near King’s Cross to attend a talk on Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, entitled Trollope at 200. The talk comprised a number of academics and Trollope enthusiasts discussing the themes explored in the author’s work: writer and biographer Jonathan Keates, Oxford Professor of English Literature Helen Small, Emeritus Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London John Sutherland and Simon Grennan, scholar in the field of visual narratology and creator of a graphic adaptation of Dispossession.

I personally feel that Trollope is a very underrated author, so was pleased to attend this discussion. Members of the panel discussed their own experiences of Trollope, his role as a novelist “of the present”, his realism and naturalism, and his handling of dialogue. One panellist raised the question of Henry James’ debt to Trollope, which I had never considered although I am a fan of both authors. I left the talk with a determination to seek out those works by Trollope that I haven’t already read, and with a renewed appreciation of his work.

Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden – Queen’s Gallery

The Queen’s Gallery

This weekend I visited the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace in order to see the exhibition Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden. Described in the introduction as “where man and nature meet”, gardens have existed in many different forms over the years: public and private, open and closed, reflecting the owner’s status and approach to life. The exhibition looks at the many different ways in which artists have looked at gardens between 1500 and the early 20th century.

The very first picture on display was an example of a garden as paradise: Mir ‘Ali Sir Neva’i’s Seven couples in a garden (c. 1510). From then on, the exhibition was divided into themes, following a roughly chronological order.

The Sacred Garden explored the use of gardens to represent symbolic meaning, for instance in Rembrandt’s Christ and St Mary Magdalene at the Tomb (1638). These pictures often show religious scenes and include objects such as the fountain of life. It was only in the 16th century when real gardens started to appear in art: Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (1615) includes lots of different animals, including parrots, horses and lions. I enjoyed trying to spot all the different animals in this picture.

The Renaissance Garden shows how from the late fifteenth century, formal, classical and literary-influenced gardens were common, with such features as mazes and topiary. Pozzoserrato’s Pleasure Garden with a Maze (1579-84) features a Venetian setting and is a very grand garden. Around this time, books about gardens by figures such as John Evelyn and Gervase Markham were common. On display is Henry VIII’s copy of the first and most important garden manual of the Renaissance, the Ruralia Commoda (c. 1490-95) by Petrus de Crescentiis.

From the 16th and 17th centuries, new kinds of flowers and plants were brought over from Africa, Asia and the New World and cultivated in Europe: The Botanic Garden looks at the growth of the science of botany and the ‘florilegium’ or flower book during this period. Still lives became more common: I particularly liked Maria van Oosterwyck’s Still Life with Flowers and Butterflies (1686), a beautiful picture. Some of Da Vinci’s drawings of plants are on display, as well as a painting from around 1677 showing Charles II being presented with a pineapple cultivated in England – impossible as pineapples were not grown in this country at that time.

Still Life with Flowers and Butterflies (1686), Maria van Oosterwyck

The small room between two of the gallery rooms is given over to elaborate china and some exquisite Fabergé flowers from around 1900. The next section, The Baroque Garden, explores how water features, aviaries and urns became popular in ever more elaborate gardens. Large scale, aerial views were common in art as people wanted to show off their gardens. This section includes pictures of London palaces, including Kensington and Buckingham, as well as Windsor Castle’s garden and William III’s gardens at Hampton Court, shown in Leonard Knyff’s painting from around 1703. Other works include Jacob Wauters’ A pergola (c. 1650) and Jakob Bogdani’s Birds in a landscape (c. 1691-1714).

The Landscape Garden looks at what was apparently England’s greatest cultural export of the eighteenth century, in which nature and rolling views were seen as ideal. William Hogarth’s The Family of George III (c. 1731-2) shows the royal family in the beautiful Richmond palace gardens. Other pictures show St James’s Park and the Mall as well as Kew Gardens, emphasising the people walking around enjoying them. This section also includes the beautiful Sunflower Clock (c. 1752), made by the Vincennes Porcelain Factory.

The Sunflower Clock

The Horticultural Garden examines the growth of horticultural expertise, the emphasis of nurture over nature and the language of flowers, showing how plants were moved indoors and cultivated. The royal family were increasingly seen in a garden setting in both real life and art: Laurits Regner Tuxen’s The Garden Party at Buckingham Palace 28 June 1897 (1897-1900) illustrates the party that took place to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The exhibition ends with a display of some beautiful fans decorated with flowers, as well as some garden-inspired jewellery given by Prince Albert to Queen Victoria.

I really enjoyed this exhibition: it was interesting to see how the representation of gardens in art has evolved through time. I would recommend it to anyone interested in art, and also to those fascinated by gardening.