Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell : Berwick Church

Duncan Grant along with Vanessa Bell and others are well known for their artistic decoration of walls and furnishings at Charleston, their Sussex retreat from Bloomsbury. It's not quite so well-known that those skills were also put to use in a number of ecclesiastical commissions. Seven years ago on this blog, I posted some images of the remarkable Russell Chantry in Lincoln Cathedral, completely covered in mural work (some of it rather homoerotic) by Grant. These images today are from the church of St Michael and All Angels in Berwick, Sussex. The two above by Duncan Grant, "The Victory of Calvary" and "Christ in Glory": the two below by Vanessa Bell "The Nativity" and "The Annunciation". They were painted onto board at Charleston and then transported to the church and fitted onto the walls. They were erected in the early 1940s and I love the inclusion of figures in contemporary dress around the nativity stall. The church is decorated in a complete scheme including work by Clive Bell as well but these, I think, are the most significant works.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Swimming Dummy

I've been admiring these two vintage press photos online for a while now. Obviously just intended as a piece of reportage about life-saving practice but taking on a macabre and almost abstract quality as well.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Go-Between. A Musical in the West End not a West-End Musical

I was lucky on Saturday to see the current West End Production of 'The Go-Between', a musical adaptation of L. P. Hartley's 1950s multi-layered masterpiece. Yes, I said a musical version. I confess to a slight trepidation at the idea of a musical as a way to adapt such a melancholy and quiet book. In fact, the musical form made for an astonishing afternoon of theatre. The entire accompaniment is from a concert-level pianist playing nearly two hours non-stop on a grand piano at the rear of the stage and he has, at his command enough musical breadth that one doesn't miss an orchestra in the pit in the slightest.

The story is, of course, an old man, recounting what should have been the 'glorious summer' when he was 12. Hartley, writing in the 1950s has the elderly Leo thinking back to his Edwardian childhood. The child of a bank manager sent to a public school, Leo is invited to spend the summer at the big country house of his old-money best friend from. Desperately trying to fit in, Leo's inexperience and vulnerability are exploited by the daughter of the house, Marian who is engaged to be married to a veteran Viscount, but has been carrying on an affair with a local tenant farmer. Leo is besotted by Marian and all she represents, and she uses this to her advantage and soon has Leo delivering messages to and from Ted, the young farmer.

In the book Leo believes in magic and he performs his boyish spells with varying results. Hartley himself was well known for his supernatural tales but save for Leo's attempts at magic The Go-Between doesn't have a supernatural element. The musical bends this around slightly and has the whole cast of the Edwardian story appear to the older Leo (Michael Crawford) as ghosts, or at least shades, urging him to 'remember' and to 'read what you wrote' in his diary of that summer. Along with the musical references to the beginning of the twentieth century and the central theme of innocence corrupted this gives the production the same kind of sinister atmosphere as Britten's 'Turn of the Screw'.

Hartley was gay and the book is sometimes cited as having homoerotic elements. I have always found this difficult to see given Leo's infatuation with Marian. However, this production shows us a young Leo who is romantically and dreamily drawn to Marian whilst at the same time beginning to realise that he may share some of the masculine sexuality represented by Ted, though he doesn't understand what that really is. Many times he begs Ted to explain. He knows that 'spooning' is a man and a woman cuddling and kissing, "but there is something more" and "you know what it is!" Ted won't tell him. Finding all Leo's questions uncomfortable Ted distracts him by teaching him how to hold and aim a shotgun; the scene is almost shocking for the way that it unifies the boy and the man, locked together, singing with passion, both with their hands on the gun. It is, of course, also a presentiment of how things are about to go horribly wrong in this affair in which Leo is embroiled.

Two songs in the musical explore the idea of Leo first as a butterfly, newly emerged, presumably from the dull and pedestrian life of a bank manager's son, and then another song explores the idea of Leo as Mercury, the messenger of the Gods. It turns out that both of these images are forms that Leo tries on, exalts in for a while, but then cannot sustain. As the older Leo says, he 'flew too close to the sun'.

The point of the book is how the events of this summer scarred Leo for life. The conceit on the stage is that the older Leo (Crawford) is reading his diary of the event and that, as at the end of the book, he will go back to find the elderly Marian and talk with her. He tells her that those events made him turn in on himself, they prevented him from being the person he was meant to be. In the most powerful scene in the show older and younger Leo confront each other and interact directly for the first time. It is powerful because who wouldn't be scared to confront their 12 year old self, who wouldn't fear that they would be angry and accuse us of making a mess of it all? Casting Crawford was something of a masterstroke, this is not mere 'big name' casting, at 74, of course the top of his range has changed and its fragility is the perfect mirror to the pure treble and the promise it contains, mirroring musically the tension of the story. The middle of Crawford's range is still as mellow and full as the pouring out of wine but his strength never overpowers, it is a beautifully calibrated performance and a humble one too, which allows the boy Leo all the room he needs for the telling of the story.

In the end how you feel about the story depends on how you react to the older Leo's very last word: "content". After a huge musical conflagration where he argues fiercely with his younger self, "You flew too close to the sun," no, says boy-Leo you ruined all the promise I had: older Leo counters, "I was proud" to have been a part of something as pure and passionate as Marian's love for Ted. It is the tragedy of the whole story that when he ends the entire show with "I am content", we do not believe him: it is the triumph of the production that amid all that subtle but powerful emotion, we know we are not supposed to.

 The Go-Between is on at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue in London

"Where the Bee sucks..."

Reader of 'Front Free Endpaper', Jeremy, has very kindly agreed to sharing this very pretty and fun illustrated text of "Where the bee sucks..." This kind of illumination was a quite popular hobby in the 1860s-80s and often such pages are found in meticulously bound albums. This one is mounted and framed in a rather fine Oxford frame. Almost certainly by a talented amateur and with a name as unremarkable as "A. Millar" it seems unlikely we shall ever know any more about this man or woman. But if the Internet ever performs one of its strange acts of synchronicity and draws to this page someone who knows more... do please share...

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Maxwell Carew as "September Morn"

My husband found me this extraordinary photograph for my collection the other day. To be honest, I have very little idea what's going on and Maxwell Carew is only referenced a couple of times on the internet on websites interested in Variety performers in the 1930s and 40s, sometimes as an "International Tenor". But I love this mainly for the madness of it, for the hope that he is wearing a prosthetic nose and that he isn't graced with that thing the whole time, and also for it's raggedness: I love a good vintage photograph that looks like it has 'had a life'.

UPDATE: As ever, my wonderful readership comes up trumps. Cosmo has posted some excellent notes and links in the comments, but as I know from experience that many people skip the comments I have decided to elevate them to the main post. Cosmo, we salute you!

Anonymous Cosmo said...
He may have been a tenor, but his balls were well tucked!
Born Leeds 1882. Died 1938.

Maxwell, who as a female impersonator, comedy dame, or character singer, has few equals on the vaudeville stage, appeared at the London Coliseum about the middle of 1910 on the same programme as the famous Sarah Bernhardt.

Carew apes the woman of fashion, rather than a wash lady who extols the merits of a departed husband. His dressing, which he studies like, a debutante, is designed on Parisian lines, and constant practice has made him a veritable fashion plate for the
lady members of the audience.

A feature of Maxwell Carew's act at the Theatre Royal is his marvellously quick changes. He prides himself on holding the world's record for a series of complete changes, with an average of about three seconds. His female impersonations are remarkably clever. Although the frock itself is changed behind the screen, the wig, shoes, and smaller parts are changed in front of
the audience Maxwell Carew,sings in French and Italian as well as in English, his repertoire including such classics as "Don Mobile," from "Rigoletti," 'The Misere Scene" from "Il Trovatore," "Parted" (by Tosti), as well as the more modern syncopated songs. During last week his "turns" were enthusiastically applauded.

And here's the painting he was aping:

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Henry Lamb (1883-1960)

One of my favourite ways to discover a new-to-me artist and their work is through a secondhand exhibition catalogue. This is exactly what happened the other day with Henry Lamb (1883-1960): I stumbled on a catalogue from his 1984 retrospective at Manchester. As the catalogue notes, he was possibly the last of that generation of early twentieth century artists to be given a full-scale retrospective. The top two black and white images on this post, "Phantasy" and "The Green Man or, The Traveller" are scans from that catalogue. It's too easy to assume that the Internet will simply offer up full-colour, hi-res images of any art work you want to see these days but this is not the case. To find the full-colour image of The Green Man below at anything like a reasonable size I had to hunt down auction results, screen capture the image in bits and then stitch it back together. I still haven't found a colour reproduction of Phantasy even though it currently resides in the Tate collection. 

In both cases it would be nice to know more about the thought and feeling behind these paintings. The Phantasy was painted in 1912 at a time when Lamb was riding a lot. The catalogue quotes Lady Pansy Lamb rather enigmatically reporting that Henry "always had a fantasy about a white horse, especially one with wings." The painting was done as a commission by Lord Bentinck but, on completion, was bought by Robert Ross. Lamb wasn't very happy with it "the colours are not ethereal enough and the background is badly bothered.. still something of the idea remains visible." The Green Man, whilst clearly influenced by Picasso also remains something of a mystery in terms of the motivation and thought process behind it.

Having found a couple of images in the catalogue that grab my attention, of course the next thing is to comb the internet for others. Art UK, which used to be the BBC Your Paintings website can be very helpful, as can auction results: images from which often don't appear in straightforward google image searches. Lamb was a versatile artist who produced decorative work, WW1 imagery and a large body of very sensitive and subject-responsive portraiture.

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