Modigliani at the RA

I went to see Modigliani and his models at the Royal Academy today. In a sense, there was nothing very surprising about the exhibition since Amedeo Modigliani only really seems to have painted rather stylised portaits and very pink nudes, including this one of Joan Collins from 1917:

It (she?) looked pinker in real life.

The stylised portraiture is intriguing, because although the basic characteristics were fairly consistent — long neck, rounded shoulders, elongated face — and the paintings all have the Modigliani look about them, the overall effect varied considerably. Some came across as caricature, including this one:

Others have a rather impersonal quality that suggests that the particular model is almost irrelevant, that the subject is just a generic woman. This portrait of his lover/common law wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, seems to me to tend to fall into that category, although not as much as some of his other pictures of her:

To get a sense of how stylised the portraits are, this is a photo of Jeanne Hébuterne:

Many of the portraits did manage to look like portraits — like they showed a real personality rather than a caricature or a blank —but I didn’t note down any titles in the exhibition and haven’t managed to track down good pictures on the web to use in this post. Which is a bit unfair on Amedeo, but them’s the breaks. I did enjoy the exhibition; the best of the paintings have a real presence to them, and they’re never less than likeable.

The most intriguing of his stylisations is perhaps the blank eyes. Some of his portraits have irises, but most have blank eyes. I can only guess that he chose to leave the eyes blank because otherwise they were too distracting. In that sense they unbalance a portrait.

In Green Park (the nearest tube station) I was amused to see that someone had scratched out the eyes on a movie poster in what I would like to believe was a reference to Modigliani, but was probably just because they were bored. I didn’t have a camera, but here’s a reconstruction:

And finally, a bonus picutre. When googling Modigliani, I discovered Cyclommatus modigliani:

I assume the beetle is named after some other Modigliani — an entomological relative — but you never know, perhaps it was named by an art-loving beetlist.



David Tennant on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’

Who Do You Think You Are? is a BBC series where they trace the family history of celebrities. There was a particularly good episode tonight with David Tennant (Doctor Who, among other acting credits). Good both because he’s an articulate, personable man and because they had some good material to work with; one branch of the family were cotters on Mull who were forced to move to Glasgow by the Clearances, and another branch were deeply involved with Protestant sectarianism in Ulster.

Two points spring to mind. One is that the appeal of the program is very much what I was saying about biography: sometimes history seems more vivid when you narrow the focus. You don’t really learn anything new about the Clearances by seeing David Tennant on the site of the town where his ancestors lived and where now there are only some stone walls standing amid the bracken, but it does help you understand the individual human cost.

The other point is that every time I see film of the west coast and islands of Scotland, it looks unutterably beautiful. If there’s a more photogenic place on earth, I don’t know where it is. I really should get up there some time, to see the phalaropes and corncrakes and sea eagles as well as the scenery.



I do enjoy reading biographies. Not just to learn more about people I have a special interest in, but as a more entertaining way of reading about history.

There can be something a bit stifling about the careful thoroughness of the conscientious historian trying to lay out all the strands of a complicated subject. The joy of a biography is that it just picks out one strand. The subject’s life offers a route through a period. And even though it’s often a rather erratic and contingent route, it forms a natural narrative.

And because these narratives are immune to certain kinds of criticism, they can be full of the kinds of unexpected twists, bizarre coincidences, heavy-handed irony and acts of heroism or villainy that might seem vulgar in mere fiction. I mean who could make up a character like T. E. Lawrence? Or Emma Hamilton?


FSotW: Digital Dendrology

Sorry, I forgot yesterday, so Flickr set of the week is a day late, but worth waiting for. It’s the remarkable Digital Dendrology by phyredesign.

“I’m fascinated by how things are structured in nature. This year, I have begun taking samples from the branches I collect, and preparing slides for viewing under a microscope. After identifying the type of tree to which the branch belongs, I use a digital camera attachment on my microscope to photograph the samples. Piecing together over fifty photographs for each sample, each final image is a 100x magnification of a glimpse of life not seen by the human eye alone. They become abstract structures reminiscent of any number of things.”

White Mulberry:




New new iTunes icons

I thought it would be fun to make a whole set, with different record labels. I’ve added Trojan, Upsetter, Chess, Apple and Sun:

You can get a zip of them as .icns files here.



I can’t remember how I found this, but LibraryThing is a site where you can keep (and share) a record of the books you own. You can rate, review and tag them, find other people with the same books, get recommendations, discuss books and all that kind of webby goodness.

I just started an account to try it out and added a few books that came to hand, and quickly found it was strangly addictive. Initially I thought I might just use it to keep a record of books I was reading at the moment, but then I went and imported a list of books which I’ve bought from Amazon or told them I own, so that blew that plan. And then I added a few other favourites and books I thought were interesting. Pretty quickly, my library reached 95 titles. At this point I really have to make a decision whever I intend to do this seriously. If you add more than 200 titles, you have to pay a subscription ($10/year or $25 for life), and I’d reach that extremely quickly if I started trying to catalogue every book I own. Or even a decent selection.

I’m still not entirely sure what the point is, but as I say, I found it surprisingly addictive. And brilliantly simple to use, particularly if you have the book (and so the ISBN number) to hand.


the clean, dry corpse of a parrot

From Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That:

24 June, 1915, Versailles. This afternoon we had a cricket match, officers v. sergeants, in an enclosure between some houses out of observation from the enemy. Our front line is three-quarters of a mile away. I made top score, 24; the bat was a bit of a rafter, the ball a piece of rag tied with string; and the wicket a parrot-cage with the clean, dry corpse of a parrot inside. Machine gun fire broke up the match.

I read the Graves at school, but I’d forgotten that little gem. I found it in A Social History of English Cricket by Derek Birley, a book which I’m finding more entertaining than the slightly dry title would suggest. It would also make an excellent choice for the list of books to explain England, since all the social changes of the past 250 years have been reflected in the development of cricket. The class system is especially well represented. Although it does contain an awful lot of cricket anecdotes which might be a bit impenetrable to our notional foreigner.

Thinking about Englishness lead me to re-read My Five Cambridge Friends by Yuri Modin, who was the KGB handler of the Cambridge Five. It really is the most extraordinary story. Having started with an Englishman playing cricket behind the lines in WWI, let’s end with another posh chap maintaining his Englishness in difficult circumstances:

I know that Philby didn’t much care for the character in The Human Factor who is supposed to be modelled on him, a whining fool who ekes out his days in a Moscow hovel. His own circumstances were totally different, what with his huge apartment, his magnificent view, the copies of The Times, Le Monde and the Herald Tribune to which he had subscribed, the videotapes of cricket test matches and the pots of Cooper’s Oxford marmalade sent from London.

We really are caricatures of ourselves sometimes.


Still thinking about books to explain the UK

Well I’ve still been thinking, on and off, about that list of ten books to explain the UK. Which is an interesting exercise.

I quickly decided to eliminate Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Not that I have anything against the Celtic Fringe, but it was complicated enough dealing with Englishness. There’s no difficulty in finding ten books all of which have some characteristically English quality to them; it’s getting some kind of balance to them as a list. For example Brideshead Revisited, Crome Yellow, Love in a Cold Climate, Summer Lightning, The Complete Saki and The Importance of Being Ernest are all in their way very English*, but they don’t exactly represent a very broad range of Englishnesses. And then there are cases like Gerard Manley Hopkins. He’s possibly my favourite poet, but as a Jesuit priest and radical poetic innovator I can hardly claim him as representative or typical.

I’m probably over-analysing again.

One thing that becomes apparent is that I don’t read enough contemporary fiction. I mean, over the years I have read quite a lot of it, but not a lot of books from the past few decades seem to be springing to mind at the moment.

I find myself drawn to books by and about English people but set abroad – A Passage to India, My Family and Other Animals, Our Man In Havana, Into The Heart of Borneo. Perhaps because the Englishness of the characters is set into relief. The flipside would be books about England written by foreigners: Voltaire, Conrad, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, even Bill Bryson.

I’m still thinking.

* yes, I do know that Wilde was Irish


The market value of a poem

If poems were not easily reproduced — if, as with paintings, owning a copy of a poem was obviously a poor alternative to owning the original — how much would an original Armitage sell for? A Larkin? An Eliot? A Marvell?