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  • Harry gets "normal"

    08badeed0ff4bfbb336973ee4d4f727b.jpgThe Daily Mail, like most of its stablemates, is gripped by another bout of Harry fever. The revelation that the carrot-top royal is soon to be an ex-air traffic controller in Afghanistan is accompanied by acres of perfectly posed photos of the pin-up prince on patrol with the Ghurkas. Tragic that for him it's "a dream come true" to take part in a ghastly conflict in a country that's been wrecked by a poisonous cocktail of religious extremism mixed up with centuries of outside interference.

    What's more Harry hasn't "really had a shower for four days, haven't washed my clothes for a week and everything seems completely normal." The prospect of slightly whiffy Prince who has only had unreal showers lately doesn't entirely do it for me. Our obsession with endlessly rubber-necking young royals and now with their bathing habits strikes me as daft and intrusive.

    The other day I was at a concert where I sat next to a young soldier the day after he got back from active duty in Iraq. After talking to him, and seeing him twitchy and alert to attack even in a concert hall in an English village, I have huge admiration for any young person brave enough to put their life on the line for their country.

  • Earth moving for beginners

    46133cfc9b387c5be50f2dc063f2401d.pngIt started with a low, distant rumble, somewhere to the north. It was 1am and I was wide awake and I thought I could hear rocks being ground together somewhere far, far away. I was wrong. The sound was not man-made - it came from deep down beneath the earth's surface: it was an ancient and utterly fundamental sound.

    Then everything - me, my bed, the whole house - seemed to quiver slightly and it got faster and louder and ornaments were knocking and I knew this was my first experience of an earth tremor. After a few seconds the shaking died away. Then the only sound was the roar of water pouring over the weir and the call of a frightened blackbird, - 'pink, pink, pink', darting away in the darkness.

    Apparently around 25 earthquakes are felt in the UK annually. At 5.2 on the Richter scale this was a one-in-30-year event, last matched by a 5.4 in Wales in 1984. It happened 15km beneath the earth's surface. The last time where was major earthquake activity at the epicentre, in Market Rasen in Lincolnshire over 100 miles from here, was in the 12th century. The seismologists say an old geological fault has opened up and may now become more active.

    Congoo link

  • The power of ornament

    04126ff5297075aeb5de340b582bc02e.jpgWeb find of the month is a site devoted to complete reproductions of illuminated books. It includes Owen Jones' astonishing Grammar of Ornament (1856), a tour de force of nineteenth century letterpress and chromolithographic printing which has had an incalculable influence on artists and designers from the Art Nouveau to Gaudi in Barcelona.

    Owen Jones' most influential book contains his own re-drawing on 'scientific' principles of over 2,000 decorative designs. The scope is vast: from designs created by 'savage tribes' to ornament from the ancient world, Arabia, China, India and Europe. The motifs presented range from intricate and highly elaborate high Renaissance manuscript illumination to apparently simple geometric tile designs from Moorish Spain and Persia.


    A passion for the orient

    Jones (1809-74) was an architect who became passionate about the superiority of non-European ornament after touring Turkey, Egypt, Sicily and Spain in 1831. Henry Cole, who founded the Victoria & Albert Museum, was one of his many collaborators.

    Jones' passion for the near east found expression in his most significant work as an architect on the interior of Christ Church, Streatham. He was criticised for his  'excessive use' of Islamic motifs there.

    Acclaimed for his decorations for the Great Exhibition in 1851, Jones worked for nine years on the publication of a lavish folio work, which exploited the capabilities of the relatively new and demanding process of chromolithography. He sold property to finance its publication, setting up his own press and training his own staff to produce it. He did not live to see it succeed commercially, and many copies were remaindered.

    Besides including a historical survey and commentary on the many gorgeous full page colour illustrations, Jones developed a series of 37 'design propositions' which attempted to codify the construction of well-made ornament. For Jones: 'All ornament should be based on geometrical construction' And 'true beauty results from that repose which the mind feels when the eye, the intellect, and the affections, are satisfied from the absence of any want'. In his final chapter he advocated a new kind of architecture based on natural forms.

    The rhythm of life

    There is an enduring appeal in many of these stunning illustrations. They combine a remarkable and carefully constructed rhythmic intensity with a highly developed colour palette. Since the Modern Movement, architects and designers have associated ornament with the literally superficial, seeing it as a layer of irrelevant decoration that obscures the underlying nature of whatever it is applied to.

    For me and I suspect for Jones, the desire to decorate is an integral part of human experience. His use of geometric reconstruction seems to link to metaphysical ideas of the golden section or 'divine proportion' which were taken up by Modern Movement architects such as Le Corbusier.

    Good ornament is intrinsic to the very essence of things.

    The Grammar of Ornament on CD-ROM for designers.

  • Islands of creativity


    Out of the chaos of my doubt
    And the chaos of my art
    I turn to you inevitably
    As the needle to the pole
    Turns . . . as the cold brain to the soul
    Turns in its uncertainty;

    So I turn and long for you;
    So I long for you, and turn
    To the love that through my chaos
    Burns a truth,
    And lights my path.

    Mervyn Peake (1911-68)

    05d2309ee9300aee1f8942d779235c84.pngThis was read today on Radio 4's 'Poetry Please'. The poem is simple, direct and beautifully constructed. Peake was a polymath who deserves to be celebrated for more than just his marvellous Gormenghast, which made such a successful BBC adaptation in 2000, featuring the enjoyably pouting Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

    c76a5aaf609d5440f8d4b6382cec98bf.jpgGormenghast was written on the tiny island of Sark, in the Channel Islands, and Mr Pye was inspired by it. Derek Jacobi made a very memorable Mr Pye for Channel 4 in 1986. Visiting Sark, I could see him (or was it Peake himself?) crossing the 9' wide isthmus, called La Coupée, which divides Little and Greater Sark.

    The Coupée leads to a view of Brecqhou island where the secretive Barclay twins, proprietors of the Daily Telegraph, have built a mock gothic castle. Visits are not possible. There was a warmer welcome on Lihou, an islet connected to Guernsey by a causeway, where we were met by Mr and Mrs Borwick of the baking powder family.

    I love being on islands, worlds in miniature, surrounded by the enticing, all-encompassing sea. Perhaps it's the sea air, or the sense of isolation?  Even the most inconsequential experience is somehow heightened on an island. Smaller islands that lie hidden beyond others have an even more secret appeal.

    e773d99b174dce676ea2e8264649680a.jpgOff Croatia lies the island of Mljet, which means honey, because the Ancient Greeks found so many bees there. According to Homer, Odysseus escaped shipwreck and stayed for seven years with the beautiful nymph Calypso. St Paul is said to have preached on the island, after being shipwrecked not in Malta but here. We walked the green hillsides of the national park, and canoed and swam naked in the gorgeous turquoise water. A narrow coastal inlet leads to a miniature inland sea, with the former Benedctine monastery of St Mary on an island in the middle of it. 

    2a1fec4ba77df80e431b62c436b35c21.pngI will never forget a trip to the monastery on Iona to see John Smith's grave. You reach it by crossing from Mull. Ancient celtic crosses face it out to the Atlantic, and in the graveyard the carved faces of chieftains blur into the stone. This is where, in around 800, monks made the Book of Kells, that masterpiece of calligraphy and illumination now in Trinity College, Dublin. The intricate decoration twists and turns in on itself, all powerful rhythms and fierce insularity.

  • "Them brown people"

    e6c65f44623212251d4ad71b1a2a2f33.jpg...Are all "bombers", according to a foolish seven year old in Holmfirth in Yorkshire. A woman of Pakistani origin, enjoying life with her mainly white neighbours, described hearing this said of her five year old by a stranger's child. It was soon after the July bombings in London. Can you blame her for moving from 'Last of the Summer Wine' country to urban Dewsbury?

    Her voice is among many in an excellent series of programmes about Pakistan this week on Radio 4.

    On Woman's Hour, an audience at Huddersfield University was in the main Pakistani. Most identified as British, but several wanted to know what had happened to 'British values'. Not just queuing and politeness, but tolerance and understanding.

    Archbishop Rowan Williams has not seen much of that, after delivering a closely argued and liberal-minded talk on Islam and the British legal system. It was scheduled to be given in the ancient church of the crusading Knights Templar.

    Williams begins by recognising a reallity - that sharia courts are operating in the UK now - and aligns Islam with other faiths such as Judaism that make rules for their followers that go beyond state law. Crucially he doesn't address the practicalities. What happens when religious law is in direct conflict with state law, as it would be if British sharia courts ever promoted the kind of sharia seen in Saudi Arabia? He blithely assumes people will be able to walk away from religious courts if they don't like them.

    Bearded Asian men and wearers of the veil talked on Radio 4 about being stigmatised as religious extremists and potential terrorists. "Not everyone who wears a head-scarf is a potential Al-Qaeda member!" Young British Muslim women of Pakistani origin described how they walk a dizzying tightrope of mixed identities.

    In spite of the support of the Bishop of Oxford, a mosque in Oxford is this week reviewing a non-Muslim's proposal to play the call to prayer to a  community that is not predominantly Muslim. The mosque's shortwave radio call to prayer is currently used by just 100 people. Many furious local objectors resent any form of religion proselytising to them.

    The Royal United Services Institute condemn Britain's 'misplaced' policies on immigration and multiculturalism, creating opportunities for terrorists: "The UK presents itself as a target, as a fragmenting, post-Christian society". Sir Trevor Phillips, Head of the Commission for Racial Equality has been warning for years of the dangers of segregated communities. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen defends liberty as more important than multiculturalism "the demands of cultural freedom include... resisting the automatic endorsement of past traditions"

    b473e63d76052f879b8b166f5d069230.pngLiberty's torch burns less brightly these days in the land of the free. The 'crusading' George W Bush this week used the July bombings as a justification for 'water-boarding' torture. Identity cards and incarceration without trial spark the fear that something similar is happening here.

    The racist five year old in Holmfirth spoke from ignorance, because he had never met his Asian neighbours. In Huddersfield, Pakistani people complained that catchment area rules were preventing them from integrating their children with the children of non-Asians.

    Freedom, religion and difference are hot topics - and for good reason. If ever there was a good time for British people of every race and religion to get together to decide what really matters to us - and what kind of society we want for the future - it is now.

  • Reni's St Sebastians at Dulwich

    5668a38b4891e71cabdcd55c0cb9c5a8.jpgSeven paintings, all of the same subject: a beautiful, almost naked youth, tied to a tree, in the throes of martyrdom. Five are almost identical versions of the same composition, from galleries as far away as Puerto Rico and New Zealand. All are uncompromising in their directness. The painting from Genoa inspired Wilde, Mishima and Pierre & Gilles. Stendahl claimed they so distracted the faithful that they had to be removed from churches.

    The St Sebastians of the 'divine Guido' Reni (1575-1642) feature in an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until May 11. It offers the public the chance to play an intriguing game of art historical 'spot the difference'. Which are 'real', which are copies? How much is the work of the master, and how much of his studio? Why are they such gay icons?

    0bdf791c743620928b081fe2b01b0fb6.jpgThe Rome painting lacks the impact of its Genoese neighbour. The paintwork is softer, the face and body less defined. A third arrow has pierced the martyr's side and the feathers of another don't now clash with the Roman soldier in the background.

    Standing in front of Reni's version from Genoa it is easy to see why it had such impact on Wilde: an athlete of classical build is indifferent to his wounds. Sacred: his boyish, asexual face, framed by his pinioned arms, gazes heavenward. Profane: his loincloth slips provocatively, emphasised by a partly turned hip.

    7cd7ffb875854fbdebbf336d03113218.jpgPierre & Gilles and Jarman also responded to this sultry mix of agony and ecstasy. Yukio Mishima had himself photographed as St Sebastian and in Confessions of a Mask the narrator discovers his sexuality because of a print of the painting.

    Of the six versions of the (earlier?) composition, that from New Zealand is the most obviously different. The brushwork is far looser, there is less light - yet in spite of these differences, the current view is that it is by Reni himself. Comparing the others on view, they all seem as one.

    e3ddbbe2034eca85ebdc03310a1b7080.jpg 711ae672ff87b3d9396011671f379c49.jpgThe Dulwich's own St Sebastian was long thought to be a copy of the painting in the Prado, Madrid. Now restoration has revealed signs of pentimenti (second thoughts) that have enabled its attribution as Reni's own work.

    For one critic Reni was self-consciously re-working notions of light, texture and atmosphere, the repeated composition a means to an end. Perhaps the explanation for so many versions is more prosaic: Reni wanted cash and welcomed requests for repeat business. He certainly went on to make other paintings of this middle-aged Roman soldier, the parton saint of sufferers of the plague, who met his final end only after his wounded body was dragged out of the cloaca maxima. Either way this Dulwich exhibition (which deserved much greater space) is fascinating.

    The exhibition is complemented by a catalogue which contains more art historical analysis than is usual. Also on show was 'The age of enlightenment: Beardsley, Dulac and their Contemporaries 1890-1930' - Beardsley's perfumed and obsessional exoticism providing another take on image making.

    Comprehensive Survey of images of St Sebastian

    Review in the Independent

  • From style moderne to Modernism: the rise and fall of the remarkable process of M. Jean Berté


    Nan Ridehalgh's talk to the Imprint Society of Reading about her original research into the Jean Berté watercolour printing process prompted this.


    Before photographs could be reproduced in print, there were the Dalziel Brothers. So when the Illustrated London News wanted to put images of the Crimean War before its readers in 1855, it sent five artists to the battlefields to draw what they saw.

    The Dalziel Brothers were then instructed to cut their versions of the drawings out of hard boxwood. These hand-engraved blocks were printed by letterpress, transmitting the drawn images of war to a mass readership. But by around 1906, when the last member of the Dalziel dynasty died, commercial wood engraving had virtually disappeared, replaced by 'photomechanical engraving' which made it possible to acid etch a photograph on to a copper printing block.

    But hand-cut image making for the masses was not dead yet. There was still the remarkable reprographic process developed by Jean Berté. He used hand-cut rubber-faced letterpress printing blocks printed using his own luminous water-based inks.

    Berté seems to have begun work in his native France before the end of the nineteenth century. Overprinting six or more of the purest, most translucent colours, he was able to mass produce images of such freshness and startling impact that they looked hand painted. Perhaps the resemblance was intended, since Berté seems to have been forced to leave France for the US, accused of 'passing off' his work as the real thing.

    98f82adc4de9ead4bc38ce244483b026.jpg6189c71d9c969238425593e4dbba32b9.jpg He introduced his process to American printers in 1927. After obtaining  patents he licensed it to more than a hundred firms across the nation. Stunning images featuring large areas of flat, bright colour often bounded by a conventionally printed black keyline were eagerly taken up the glamorous new 'advertising men', busy riding the wave of the pre-depression boom. Berté's copywriting had impact, too. He promised to make the 'velvet softness of a sun-kissed cheek' 'live again'.

    Printing trade journals featured gorgeous images of tropical seas and exotic birds in vivid reds, oranges and yellows (reminiscent of Clarice Cliff's pottery), promoting the glorious impact of Berté's colours. The style was frequently Art Deco (or style moderne), since that look favoured large areas of flat, bold colour and complemented Berté's inventive new printing process. Soon a few of Berté's images even began to appear in Britain.

    But with a few notable exceptions, British printers were largely unmoved by the brilliance of M. Jean Berté's wonderful new images. These bright colours were all very well for the Americans, but perhaps they didn't fit with the printed aesthetic of the day, driven as it was by Stanley Morison's revivals of historic printing types for the Monotype Corporation.

    540f5042426f6db97d4102020d0c5a8b.png3a8ddd6891cd5503b0650e77b99c906e.pngOne exception was the printing house of Herbert Reiach on the south bank in London. The company produced a range of book jackets for Batsford designer Brian Cook using the Berté process. With their bold designs and bright (even garish) colours the titles fairly leapt from the shelves. Given the modernity of their jackets, it seems odd that the subject of many of the Batsford books was nostalgic. In wartime, Batsford's 'Face of Britain', 'English Life' and 'British Heritage' series comfortingly described the landscape, traditional pubs and old villages.

    In his 90th year, Arthur Spence, a former Berté craftsman, described to Nan Ridehalgh how he had worked at Lund Humphries with a sharp scalpel, cutting images from pieces of vulcanised rubber, locked into an adjustable turntable which was mounted on a sloped drawing board. At first the process was 'pretty crude' but then became more refined.

    bda6d2bca33506f9685f8a082758499f.jpg72d03c55c31972073779593c588772a6.jpgIn London after the war, much that had not already been destroyed by bombs was swept away. New cityscapes of concrete and glass rose in the square mile and on the south bank a new people's playground was going up for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Moderne gave way to Modernism - the aesthetic of Abram Games' logo for the Festival was machine-made, the colours cool blues, red and black. To my eyes at least, the Festival Hall seems grey and not at all celebratory.

    Jean Berté's bright American colours, printed from hand-cut blocks, must have seemed at odds with the spirit of the time. At Batsford in the early fifties, Brian Cook designed his last few jackets, applying the process to a more muted palette. But time was up for the hand-cut Berté blocks and for the riverside premises of Herbert Reiach. They were bulldozed to make way for the new south bank. The company relocated to Faringdon Street but soon after all traces of it are lost.

  • Touching the past (2)


    Columbia Grafonola sold at auction7ed3c89b8295fae68f5b2998c9edffb3.jpgWhen I was a little boy my mother used to visit auctions. With good taste, little cash and a canny eye for a bargain she furnished our cottage with lots from the salerooms of Martin & Pole and Vanderpump & Wellbelove and from the charity auctions she helped organise in our village.

    One day around 1970 a van turned up with her latest acquistion - a wind-up gramophone. Not the portable sort favoured by picnickers in 'Three men in a boat' style expeditions, but a proper piece of dark oak furniture with the sounding horn concealed behind double doors. Choose a 78 from the stack of classical recordings (I especially remember a set of Swan Lake excerpts); make sure the steel needle is nice and sharp; wind the handle and for a good two minutes the sound of the orchestra fills the room.

    I was entranced by the beautiful mechanism - the shiny tone arm, the heavy disks in their seductive brown sleeves in the cupboard below and the way it just worked, for just a few quick turns of the clockwork handle. The tin horn that sprouted so mysteriously inside its wooden case intrigued me above all. Three louvres behind the double doors directed the sound. I discovered that if I called inside my voice echoed back, changed by the horn within. I slipped my small boy's hand between the narrow gap between the louvres, curious to find the source of the sound.

    I remember reaching in, my knuckles knocking on the tin sides. I followed the horn's shape deep inside to where it narrowed to a small square compartment. Unexpectedly my fingers touched something soft. A cord-tied black cloth bag full of the most gorgeous glass marbles I had ever seen: spiralling meshes of twisting colour: reds, blues, oranges and yellows. Several large marbles (tolleys) the throwing of which would start a game. Suddenly I thought I saw another small boy, perhaps 50 years before, reaching inside the gramophone, just as I had done, and finding the perfect place to hide his precious set of marbles. Almost four decades have passed, the gramophone was sold long ago and I am still intrigued. Why did he leave them there, and what became of him?

    Phonograph ephmera site