2015 Reading Challenge – A book a friend recommended


My final book of the PopSugar 2015 Reading Challenge was S. by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, which my friend Janine recommended to me months ago. It’s highly unusual, as it is not just a straightforward story: the notes written in the margins are a crucial part of the novel, too. Definitely recommended.

Festive reads


I’m about to finish work and head home for Christmas and I am SO excited. It’s going to be really strange having Christmas in a house that isn’t the one I grew up in, but my parents’ new house has enough space for TWO Christmas trees, so there are certainly some advantages.

I have a three-hour train journey ahead of me, so naturally I have gathered together some books to keep me occupied.

The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell – I adore penguins (I’m incredibly excited about the BBC’s new show Snow Chick: A Penguin’s Tale, which is on tomorrow) and when I saw this book mentioned online somewhere I was determined to read it. Apparently a true story, it is the tale of Michell’s life in South America with a penguin he rescued.

S. by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst – My friend recommended this book to me ages ago (it’s going to be the final book in my 2015 Reading Challenge) and the premise is incredibly intriguing. It’s a book within a book: a story called Ship of Theseus and the tale of two of its readers, whose annotations add an extra layer to the story. It contains so many bits and pieces that I haven’t dared try and read it on my commute, so I’m glad to have the chance to really get into it this Christmas.

Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards – I’ve read several British Library Crime Classics (early 20th century crime stories republished) in recent years, and one of their publications – Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon – was my train read last December. I love a good festive mystery and I’m looking forward to sampling this selection of short stories.

What are you reading these Christmas holidays? Are you hoping to find any books under the tree?

Cosmetics Gift Workshop – Southbank Centre

Browsing the Southbank Centre website, I came across a craft workshop for only £5, designed for participants to make their own Christmas gifts. As a huge fan of bath products from places like Lush, I signed up straight away.

The workshop involved making natural cosmetics, the kind that are growing in popularity and are sold in shops like Oxfam, as well as some supermarkets. The session began with a short talk about the history of the company, as well as a discussion of some of the ingredients and their properties, including shea butter and coconut oil. All the ingredients are fair trade and organic.

Workshop talk

After the talk it was time to get to work! We split into groups to make two bath melts, a sugar scrub and a lip balm for each person. We decided to make the lip balm first to allow it to set, followed by the bath melts and then the sugar scrub.

We found it quite tricky to weigh the ingredients exactly – to the nearest gram. However after some weighing and re-weighing we got into the swing of things and weighing the ingredients for the subsequent cosmetics was much more straightforward. We managed to divide up the work pretty well, with some people taking responsibility for weighing and measuring, others for chopping up the lumps of shea butter and others sorting out the outer wrapping, while one poor bloke who’d been brought along by his partner was relegated to standing in the microwave queue to get our ingredients melted down.

The lip balm was poured out and left to set while we started on the bath melts – scented with lavender. Finally we made the sugar scrub, which looked good enough to eat (but we didn’t).

The finishing touch was a little Christmas gift bag in which we placed our newly-made goodies. Though the workshop was designed to make presents, I don’t really know anyone who likes this kind of thing as much as I do, so I decided to keep it for myself (that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!).

Beautifully packaged

The Amazing World of M. C. Escher – Dulwich Picture Gallery

Exhibition poster

I’ve admired the work of artist M. C. Escher for a long time; his pictures are unique, and have influenced popular culture to a significant degree. In particular, a major scene from the film Labyrinth was inspired by an Escher work, and Mick Jagger even tried to commission a picture from the artist for a Rolling Stones album cover, though Escher, having never heard of Jagger or the band, turned him down.

It’s rare to have several Escher works collected together for an exhibition in the UK, so I was very excited to hear about The Amazing World of M. C. Escher, which runs at Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London until 17 January. The exhibition has been organised by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, and showcases nearly 100 works from the collection of the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag in the Netherlands.

Dulwich Picture Gallery

I had heard that the exhibition was rather busy, so I decided to book online in advance and choose an early time slot. I arrived in time for my 10.15 slot which was ideal – the exhibition was very quiet, with no queues as yet! Tickets cost £14 for adults and £7.50 for concessions/Art Fund members; children and Dulwich Picture Gallery Friends get free entry.

The exhibition follows a chronological timeline, beginning with Escher’s early landscape prints and tracing his development as an artist as he grew interested in perspective and developed knowledge of the mathematical principles that would inform his later work. The first major UK show of his work, it includes woodcuts, lithographs, drawings, watercolours and mezzotints, as well as exclusive archive material such as initial concept drawings and correspondence with mathematicians such as Roger Penrose, who assisted him in the execution of some of his later designs.

Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898–1972) started out by training as an architect. In 1918, he was studying at the School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem, Holland, when a teacher noticed his talent as a draughtsman and printmaker. He was advised to move into the Graphic Art department, and his career as a printmaker dates from this moment.

Escher spent several years moving around Europe, and this is reflected in his earlier prints which include Italian townscapes, Netherlands landscapes, and influences including the Islamic tiles he saw on a visit to Moorish Spain. His early work consists of distinctive woodcuts, lithographs and drawings which are more straightforward in design, before he began playing with perspective. Though his work bears some resemblance to Surrealism, he had no contact with the Surrealist group.

I loved all the pictures, but one of my favourites was the still life that transformed seamlessly into a street scene. I also loved the picture showing lizards crawling out of a two-dimensional tessellation to become three-dimensional creatures. In fact, all the tessellated pictures were fascinating and extremely clever. Later in the exhibition, I loved the “impossible pictures” showing monks climbing neverending stairs and water flowing in impossible ways.

Escher’s career spanned two world wars and his work increased in popularity as the century wore on. His work was so different from that of any other artist and by the time of his death he was truly acclaimed. Today, his work is still appreciated and admired. I’m so glad I was able to see this exhibition and I left with an even greater appreciation of Escher’s work.

As a nice touch, the exhibition ended with the opportunity to take a selfie in an Escher-like pose!

Escher exhibition selfie

Jean Etienne Liotard – Royal Academy of Arts

I paid a visit to the Jean Etienne Liotard exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, which is on until 31 January in the Sackler Wing, Burlington House. Liotard (1702-89) worked largely as a portraitist across Enlightenment Europe. Born in Geneva, he travelled widely, working at times for the British, French and Austrian royal families. More unusually, his exploration of the Near East and the Ottoman Empire gave him a fascination with Oriental costume and a nickname, “the Turk”. This is the first sole exhibition of Liotard’s work in the UK, and includes over 70 works.

Liotard worked largely in pastels, which makes him very different from other artists that I am familiar with. His portraits have fantastic detail and he was clearly a very accomplished artist, but to my eye there is something slightly flat about them: I missed the depth that oil paintings have. The exceptions are Liotard’s self-portraits and the pictures of his family and friends, which reveal sensitivity and depth. I particularly liked the unusual Self-Portrait Laughing from c. 1770.

I did notice that the pictures included a lot of blue, and I wondered why. Perhaps blue was just a common colour of the clothes of the period, or perhaps Liotard wanted to make the pictures look expensive: I know that in terms of oil paint, blue shades were particularly expensive, so perhaps using pastel was a way to get this effect without the cost. However, this is just conjecture.

This was an interesting and unusual exhibition, well worth seeing, and rather enlightening.

White: a project by Edmund de Waal – Royal Academy of Arts

I recently visited a new exhibition, White: a project by Edmund de Waal, at the Royal Academy of Arts. This exhibition, which runs until 3 January, is unusual as it takes place in the RA Library and Print Room. As a librarian, I was really interested to see inside this space.

The project is curated by artist Edmund de Waal, and is an exploration of the colour white, its meaning and impact and its role in different contexts. De Waal has collected a number of white objects for display, each of which is very different. The objects include books, sculptures, paintings and photographs.

Edmund de Waal, who has written a forthcoming book relating to this topic – The White Road – is best known for his memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes. That very same hare is on display in this exhibition: created around 1880, and attributed to Sawaki Rizo Masatoshi.

Some of de Waal’s own white sculptures are visible here, and other varied pieces are also displayed, including a bust of a woman from the late fifteenth century, sculpted after Francesco Laurana. My favourite, however, was the South Arabian calcite alabaster anthropormorphic stele, carved in the first century BC or AD.

Images included Garry Fabian Miller’s It’s Open Clear Light from 2014–15, as well as Horatio Ross’ Fir trees on the banks of Dornoch Firth between Ardgay and Fearn of around 1850. In terms of the written word, the manuscript of John Cage’s 4’33” and the white page from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy were also displayed.

The exhibition explored what the colour white might mean, revealing its lack of neutrality, its blankness, purity and spirituality. It got me thinking about what the colour white means to me, what it represents. When I think of white I think of clouds, of blank paper, but most of all of the icy landscapes of the Arctic and Antarctic. What does white mean to you?

The Foundling Museum

The Foundling Museum

I recently visited The Foundling Museum near Russell Square. I had originally visited a few years ago, but the museum has been refurbished since, and I fancied going again.

The Foundling Hospital was founded in 1741 by Thomas Coram, a statue of whom can be seen outside the museum. He campaigned for seventeen years before being granted a royal charter by George II in 1739. The hospital cared for children until 1954, when the last pupil was placed in foster care. In total, around 25,000 children were cared for by the hospital, which was Britain’s first children’s charity.

The museum, which occupies one of the hospital’s original buildings, covers four floors. The ground floor has an exhibition on the history of the Foundling Hospital, explaining that most of the children arrived here because their mothers couldn’t care for them, either because they had been widowed or because they had “got into trouble” while unmarried. As more and more babies were in need of a home, a lottery system was introduced: mothers had to take a ball out of a cloth bag; a white ball meant that their baby would be accepted, while a black ball meant that they would be turned away. The women had to prove that they were of previous good character: later in the museum there were letters from parents and statements from employers, confirming the character of girls who wanted the hospital to care for their children.

Mothers were allowed to leave tokens with their children, on the off chance that they were able to return and reclaim them if their circumstances improved. This did happen occasionally, but most women would never see their children again. The display of tokens is incredibly poignant and moving: they range from jewellery to buttons to any small item that was reasonably unique.

Life in the hospital was strict: children were kept to a regimented timetable, had to obey many rules, and were made to wear a uniform. In fairness, they were well-treated and given enough to eat: compared to many poor children they were well off. The children were educated and trained for service; later, many foundlings went into the armed forces, where they tended to adapt to the life very well given their upbringing. The later part of the exhibition looks at some of the last orphans to belong to the hospital, many of whom are still alive, and who have shared their experiences.

Nowadays, Coram still has a role, helping children and young people to develop their skills and emotional health, finding adoptive parents and upholding the rights of children. The museum, though, focuses on the past. The rest of the rooms on the ground floor and the first floor are laid out as they would have been several centuries ago: the ground floor room the very same in which women had to take part in the heartbreaking lottery, the upstairs rooms richly furnished and ornamented with paintings. The hospital was the first public art gallery, Coram having cajoled and persuaded several artists, including William Hogarth, to donate their work.

Thomas Coram

The top floor of the museum is home to the Gerald Coke Handel Collection, an internationally-important collection relating to the composer, including manuscripts, printed music and books. Handel left the score of the Messiah to the Foundling Hospital in his will.

The museum has a programme of temporary exhibitions. The current exhibition is The Fallen Woman, which runs until 3 January. It looks at the representation in art of “the fallen woman”, particularly in the nineteenth century, including the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Richard Redgrave, George Frederic Watts and Thomas Faed. The exhibition is certainly interesting and explores the myth in a compelling way.

I enjoyed my visit to the Foundling Museum: it’s well worth exploring and does tell a fascinating story.


Address: 40 Brunswick Square, London, WC1N 1AZ

Website: foundlingmuseum.org.uk

Opening Hours: 10-5 Tues-Sat, 11-5 Sun

Prices: Adults £8.25; concessions £5.50; children, Friends and Art Fund members free

2015 Reading Challenge – A book set in the future


I’m not usually a fan of sci-fi, so left this one pretty late; but when I got around to reading 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke I actually really enjoyed it. There wasn’t too much scientific detail to get bogged down in, and the story was great.