Sunday, 19 January 2014

Gate of honour

The nice thing about having visitors - apart from their company of course - is that you see the place in which you live through their eyes.  Even somewhere as extraordinary as Cambridge is easy to take for granted when you see it every day.

We walked across Jesus Green and along Trinity Street and, as it was open to visitors, we popped into Gonville and Caius (pronounced 'keys') College - through the Gate of Humility, past the avenue of trees in Tree Court, through the Gate of Virtue into Caius Court.

At the south side of Caius Court is the Elizabethan Gate of Honour, designed by Dr Caius, who had studied in Padua under Vesalius and who had been physician to both Edward VI and Mary.  The gate was built to his design (but after his death) in 1575.

Nicholas Pevsner is very snooty about this gate, but it is one of my favourite buildings - if it actually counts as a building - in Cambridge.   Graduating students pass through it on the way to get their degrees from the Senate House opposite.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Kettle's Yard

We also went to Kettle's Yard yesterday.  Kettle's Yard is a small museum in Cambridge, linked to the house of art collector and supporter Jim Ede who died in 1990.  He studied painting at the Slade and was assistant curator at the Tate at one point.  His house is open to the public and is a magical place.  I first came here many years ago with friends, long before I lived in Cambridge.  It is full of lovely pieces by the likes of Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, but it is the little collections of stones and quirky pieces of glass and ceramic and wood that give it its charm.

We arrived near to closing time and it was dark outside.  It gave the house a totally different atmosphere  as there are areas of the rooms that were in deep shadow.  It made it feel even more like sneaking into someone's else's house than usual, somehow.

Friday, 17 January 2014

John Craxton

We had a friend staying with us for a couple of days - Susan Harvey-Davies - and she was keen to see the John Craxton exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

I like the exhibitions at the Fitzwilliam.  They tend to be small and a little bit eclectic.  It was filled with young school children when we first arrived and the atmosphere changed radically when they left.

I don't know what I make of John Craxton's work.  We have a lot of examples of his paintings in various books on our shelves, whilst not owning an actual monograph on him.  Some of his work I really like, but there is a lot I really don't like.  His influences are possibly too readable.

The exhibition starts with a lovely little painting, but the main thing that is so lovely about it, is that it is very like a Graham Sutherland (in fact it was painted when he went to stay with Sutherland and is a view of the very place that produced Sutherland's own Entrance to a Lane - and has the same title).  Elsewhere can be seen little (and large) echoes of Picasso, Miro, and Braque.

Having said all that, there were paintings I liked a lot here, my favourite being a small picture - a tempera I think - of a goat.  Craxton was fond of goats and they appear in a lot of his paintings.  It is a golden rule of exhibitions that they never have a postcard of the painting you liked most and this was the case here.  I have even tried Googling for it, but nothing appeared.  I shall just have to remember how nice it was.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Two brave boys

For reasons that may eventually become clear, I have been looking at Victorian and Edwardian book jackets a lot lately.  I had been looking at them online, but remembered that my studio is in an area that contains quite a few charity shops.  A quick excursion and I grabbed two or three nice examples, this being one of them.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Floating head

In the studio today.  I've been playing around with various technical aspects of painting - trying to get a fixed working method together for some illustrations I want to do.  I seem to have hit on a basis I'm happy with - some very think watercolour paper that I just tape to my desk rather than stretch on a board, a layer of roughly applied black acrylic, a thinner layer of white/grey over the top and then scratched back, and then the image itself painted over the top in thin glazes applied in short brush strokes in a kind of tempera technique.

One of the problems with painting in acrylics is that it can be hard - if you are using a textured ground as I'm doing - to see any pencil lines when you come to lay out your image.  This matters when you need to hit a particular mark or repeat a face, say, as is often the case in book illustration.

I have used a waterproof pen here.  It did lift a little - but I think that was mainly due to me not waiting long enough.  It didn't matter as I am only using shades of grey anyway.  It might if I was using colour. We'll see.   I have actually used the same pen to draw the mouth over the top at the end.

I have a large notebook full of random images - images I just drew without any end in mind.  They are drawn very simply in line only, mostly.  I was interested to see if I could take one of these line drawings and make something more resolved from it.  I was quite pleased with this beginning.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Peake again

Peake also makes an appearance on my notice board next to my desk at home, with an illustration to stories by the Brothers Grimm, but most of the cards are ones I picked up from the Dickens Museum last year - three illustrations to A CHRISTMAS CAROL and a photograph of the man himself.

I like to have a kind of mood board on the go when I'm writing, and it feels right to have Dickens keeping an eye on me at the moment as I am daring to tinker with the great man's work

The illustrations to A CHRISTMAS CAROL are there to remind me of the impact that story had on me as a young boy - the story and those images (by John Leech) - particularly the cowled figure of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come...perhaps one of the most unsettling creations in all of English literature.

Monday, 13 January 2014

A very nice Christmas present

My wife gave me this rather wonderful Christmas present  - a lovely edition of Coleridge's THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER illustrated by Mervyn Peake.

Peake must have known the famous Gustave DorĂ© illustrations but has produced something far less cinematic in its sweep.  They are darker, simpler - more intense, more psychological.

He makes the mariner - and the story - seem more universal and therefore more modern.  Good illustrations, like good movie adaptations, can reinvent a story for a new generation.  Peake certainly did this.  He was the best of the 20th Century illustrators of the poem, I think.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Night walks

I was reading this over the Christmas period.  It is one of the beautifully designed little Penguin 'Great Ideas' books.  It is fascinating.  It is basically Dickens describing insomnia-induced walks around London at night.  But it is more of a mental journey, as each street, each building, he passes, triggers a paragraph or two of musing.

My son asked me today if I thought Dickens was overrated.  Far from being overrated, I said I thought he was in fact underrated.  He is a much more powerful writer than he is often given credit for being.  Much darker too.  At his best his work is as good as writing gets.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Shutter island

We watched Martin Scorsese's SHUTTER ISLAND over Christmas.  The DVD has been sitting on the shelf for weeks now, but we have never been in quite the right mood to each it.  I note that the poster above says that it 'demands multiple viewings'.  I'm not really sure that's true, but I enjoyed it.

I think DiCaprio has turned into a really interesting actor and I thought the opening shots were great.  In fact, the look of it was superb.  It had that Hitchcockian hyper-realism and a great soundtrack.  It was just a shame that the story didn't seem quite strong enough to carry the movie.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Wyeth continued...

Michael Palin's BBC4 programme about Andrew Wyeth inevitably touched on his father, N C Wyeth.  Michael Palin was keen to show his eccentricities and influence on the young Andrew, but he did not seem to be very interested in his work.  He pointed out that he was a very successful illustrator, but he did not point out that he was also a brilliant one.

Father and son are very different as artists and it may be that Palin just did not like N C Wyeth's work.  But it is also true that he is not as well known in the UK as he is in the US.  I've always loved his work.    Very few illustrators get into the business of modelling to the degree that N C Wyeth did - line and wash still dominates (even if the 'wash' may now be done on Photoshop).  N C's illustrations are all about modelling.  They have a depth and weight to them that sets them apart from much of the European illustration output of that era, full of big, muscular, square-jawed men, solid as oak trees.

N C Wyeth's illustrations to R L Stevenson's KIDNAPPED and TREASURE ISLAND are fantastic - although  the locations in both seem to look remarkably like Maine.

Thursday, 9 January 2014


It was nice to see a programme about Andrew Wyeth pop up in the listings over the Christmas break.  Unfortunately the programme was fronted by Michael Palin, who is a very nice chap and everything, but did not seem to have much in the way of any particularly fresh or revealing insight into the work.  I assume he admires Andrew Wyeth's paintings and came up with the notion himself, otherwise he was a very odd choice indeed.

That said, few art historians or critics would have done it.  Wyeth rarely gets that kind of attention.  And it is true that some - maybe even a lot - of his output was simply well crafted and nothing more, but the best of it is wonderful, I think.  I love the intensity of the temperas - they have such a haunting atmosphere.  He slowed the world right down to the speed at which he painted it

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The ghost story returns

The BBC gave many of us a wonderful Christmas present this year in bringing back to life - if that's quite the right expression - the much loved Ghost Story for Christmas.

I have blogged about these programmes from the 1970s many times before, stating what an influence they were on me - and many others, I'm sure.  I have also been lucky enough to meet Lawrence Gordon Clark, the man who brought those stories to our screens, at the Halifax Ghost Story Festival.

Mark Gatiss was at the helm this time and I'm sure that it is his personal enthusiasm for the project that has resulted in these programmes being revived.  He deserves a medal.  Or some sort of dusty amulet.

Having said all that, I was little bit underwhelmed by THE TRACTATE MIDDOTH - his choice for the film.  As with most of the Lawrence Gordon Clark adaptations, it was an M R James story.  Unfortunately, I don't think it is M R James' strongest.  It relies on a coincidence of such unbelievable proportions it undermines the whole tale.

It is a mistake to think that because a ghost story is inherently fantastical, you do not need to follow the normal rules of logic outside of that part of the story.  The more believable the details of the story are, the more the reader (or viewer) will be pulled in.  I think Gatiss should have shown a bit less respect to the story and given it a tweak.  He did after all move it forward in time a few decades.

But I can't be too hard on it, because I am so pleased to have the Ghost Story strand back.  I just wonder whether its time - as Gordon Clark did with Dickens' THE SIGNALMAN - to leave M R James in peace and go elsewhere for stories.  A version of W W Jacobs THE MONKEY'S PAW perhaps....?

Or...ahem...some other, more recent, purveyor of creepy fiction....

Tuesday, 7 January 2014


The BBC showed an adaptation of THE THIRTEENTH TALE over Christmas.  I haven't read Diane Setterfield's book - though my wife has and was full of praise - but I really enjoyed the film.

The acting was first rate - from all concerned, but especially from Vanessa Redgrave, Olivia Coleman and Madeleine Power who played the younger version of both twins. The locations were excellent too, and it was beautifully shot.  So often these things are shot under incongruous blue skies, but they weren't afraid to film under leaden clouds and it made it all the more atmospheric.

I can say almost nothing about the plot without spoiling it for anyone watching so I will just say that it had a lovely fairy tale feel to it whilst still clinging to the possible (just).  It had some genuinely creepy moments too.

Lets have a bit more of this kind of thing, BBC

Monday, 6 January 2014

Hammer's Hill

I finally got round to watching the recent Hammer adaptation of Susan Hill's THE WOMAN IN BLACK over Christmas.

THE WOMAN IN BLACK is, in my opinion, one of the very few novels that manages to make a ghost story work at that length.  There are many great creepy short stories and the odd novella, but it is a very hard trick to pull off in a novel.  Even Susan Hill herself has found it difficult to repeat.

There was a very good - or I remember it as very good - television adaptation many years ago, and there has of course been a very successful stage version in the meantime.  This adaptation seems to have divided critics and my own friends - some love it, some not so much.  I saw it on DVD and by all accounts, it was much better at the cinema.

It is as hard to make a genuinely creepy movie as it is to write a genuinely creepy novel - so most directors don't try, they simply try to make you jump.  I loved the opening few minutes.  The three girls silently walking to the window and throwing themselves out was wonderfully unsettling and dreamlike, but there weren't enough moments like that.  The Woman in Black herself glimpsed fleetingly in the shadows and a spectral boy climbing out of the mud to approach the house were nice and creepy - and the look of the whole was nice - muted colours and nice locations, but it fell into the trap of going from one 'Boo!' moment to the next.  The problem with that is that by the time you reach the end it will almost always appear a bit weak.  As it did here.

Unlike the ending of the novel, which is every bit as strong as the premise.  And that's a hard trick to pull off.

It wasn't a bad movie - and it did have a real Hammer feel about it (and I mean that in a good way) and it was so much better than many of its kind - simply by dint of being rooted in such a good story - but it could have been much better.  It could have been troubling.  The television adaptation has clung to me ever since like a bad memory.  I will have forgotten this one in a few weeks.