I could have told them that.

“A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Treasury Department is violating the law by failing to design and issue currency that is readily distinguishable to blind and visually impaired people.”

Speaking as a fully-sighted person, when I was in Ecuador (where they use US dollars) I found the near-identical designs of different denominations really annoying; it must be a nightmare for the blind.



‘Holbein in England’ at Tate Britain

I went to see the Holbein at the Tate today. It’s a large exhibition with a lot of Holbein’s work from collections all over the world. I can certainly recommend it, because Holbein was a remarkable and enjoyable portraitist. The finished paintings are outnumbered by drawings in a combination of coloured chalk and ink. As far as I can gather, most of these were studies for paintings rather than stand-alone works, but they work beautifully as portraits. If anything, the highly-finished and perfect oils paintings can seem a little inhuman next to the softer drawings.

My copy of the complete Thomas Wyatt has the drawn Holbein portrait on the front cover, and I remember thinking when I got it that if you’re going to be a famous poet, it’s a good idea to get a portrait you’d like to be remembered by. My edition of Keats has a distinctly ham-fisted portrait by a mate of his which makes him look very inconsequential. The drawing above isn’t Wyatt; it’s the other early sonneteer, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey.

Holbein seems to have produced very fine likenesses, although there’s a logical problem somewhere with looking at a portrait of someone you’ve never seen and concluding it’s a good likeness. Certainly his pictures all look different from each other, apart from that slight sense of period similarity that comes from all of them having the same hairstyles and frocks. And indeed facial expressions; although we’re not aware of it, I’m sure that our culture shapes the way we arrange our faces more than we think. Certainly Americans of European descent have different faces to people from whichever Old Country.

Anyway, he’s a fine portraitist and one of the pleasures of the show is a sense of being introduced to Tudor society; you ‘meet’ dozens of people from Tudor London. It’s not exactly a cross section — they’re all wealthy — but they are courtiers, bishops, merchants, poets, royalty, young, old, and each seems like an individual.

It’s quite a big exhibition and if there is a problem with it, it can get a bit same-y. It’s almost all bust-length portraits, and he doesn’t seem to have made much technical progress during his career. He was excellent when he reached London (aged 31) and was consistently excellent for the 17 or so years he lived here until he died, but if his worked changed stylistically in that period it’s not obvious to me. I don’t think I could tell whether a painting was early or late. Some of the finest portraits in the exhibition are among the earliest: studies for a group portrait of Thomas More’s family, painted soon after reaching London for the first time (the finished work doesn’t survive).

More was his first contact in London, thanks to a letter of introduction from Erasmus, and there’s some suggestion he may have stayed for a period with More in Chelsea. So he knew the family well, which may be why his portraits of them seem so good. Also, despite my comments about lack of change during his career, it’s worth noting that at this stage he’s working just in chalk without any ink touches, so that makes the pictures softer; that may be part of the appeal. Still, its hard to see that any of his later work improves on the famous portrait of Thomas More, or this study of Anne Cresacre, a ward of More’s.

If you’re interested and can’t easily get to Pimlico, do check out the exhibition website (linked to above), because the Tate always makes an admirable effort to include as many photos of the work as copyright allows. What proportion of the works are available online depends on who they are mainly borrowed from, but at least they make the effort.

FSotW: local

A day late, but hey-ho. Flickr set of the week is local by squacco. ‘Local’ in this case being Manchester – the one in the north of England, not one of the 19 Manchesters in the US. Or indeed the ones in Bolivia or Surinam.

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Adam Elsheimer at DPG

There’s an exhibition of Adam Elsheimer paintings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. From the DPG site:

On hearing of Elsheimer’s early death Rubens wrote ‘Surely, after such a loss our entire profession ought to clothe itself in mourning. We will not easily succeed in replacing him; in my opinion he had no equal in small figures, in landscapes, and in many other subjects’. This exhibition is a unique opportunity to re–discover this painter ‘without equal’.

I admit I’d not heard of Elsheimer, but apparently he was an important influence on Rembrant, Rubens and Claude Lorrain. He makes an excellent choice for an exhibition at a small gallery, because he wasn’t very prolific and his paintings were small. That (and the fact that he’s not so well known) has allowed them to exhibit effectively his entire output: 30 of 34 accepted surviving paintings.

The paintings are small because they’re on copper, and apparently copper sheets had to be small for practical reasons. I found myself wondering whether he did small paintings because he liked working on copper or he worked on copper because he liked doing small paintings. I know that it’s not the most sophisticated aesthetic response to get fixated on the size, but I do think there’s quite a profound division between people who are miniaturists by inclination — in painting, poetry or whatever — and those who like the grand sweep.

The distinction is brought out in Elsheimer because many of his paintings have the kind of complex, dynamic compositions that you can imagine being painted ten foot tall by his contemporaries. This picture, The Stoning of Saint Stephen, which normally lives in the National Gallery of Scotland, is one of his larger works, but it’s still only 34.70 x 28.60 cm:

The size means they have less immediate impact, but there’s an intimacy in viewing these paintings; there’s only really room for one person in front of each, and you find yourself standing with your nose practically touching them. And the execution of tiny details is fascinating in itself. Still, I found there was something weirdly constrained about them, as though the practical explanation for why they were small wasn’t quite enough to explain it.

Hurray for the London Olympics!

I really feel like London was cheated out of a cheerful honeymoon period of harmless excitement between winning the bidding for the 2012 Olympics and the start of the inevitable gloomy stories about spiralling costs. Cheated because, of course, it was the morning after we won that a bunch of devout young men from Leeds hijacked the news agenda.

It was always going to cost more than predicted — it’s a big capital project run by policitians. That’s what happens. And it was always inevitable that there would be a lot of whining from dismal killjoys. But the enthusiast, pro-Olympic side of the argument lost all its momentum just as it should have been drawing people in, and so we’re going to have the six years of gloomy pronostication without having had the chance to enjoy the initial moment.

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Nearly time for the Ashes

Just an hour until the start of the Ashes. Since the play is going to run from something like midnight to 7am, I’m not going to listen to it all, but I want to at least stay up to hear the start of play.

I can’t help feeling that England have less momentum going into this series than the last one, but if our key men play well — Flintoff, Harmison and Hoggard particularly, but the batsmen as well — I don’t think Australia will find it easy. We’ll miss Simon Jones, but we’ve still got match-winning bowlers.

I’m kind of blathering at this point.

*fingers crossed*

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Holiday book report: Bleak House

By Charles Dickens, obviously. I have to admit, this isn’t really my idea of holiday reading: it’s just too long for that. But I half-inched it from a hotel I stayed at in Quito. It was either that or Harry Potter in Finnish.

It’s odd reading Dickens; sometimes he seems so dated — so sentimental, so cosy, so verbose, so typical of everything about the Victorians which has aged least well, like the Albert Memorial and majolica. In Bleak House, this is typified by ‘Esther’s Narrative’, those chapters, probably about 1/3 of the book, which are a first-person narrative in the voice of the angelic heroine of the story. I find the syrupiness of her portrayal unbearable. It sets my teeth on edge.

But at the same time there’s a thick vein of weirdness which is all his own. Dickens’s grotesquery is always tinged with a reassuring touch of comedy, but it’s a fag-paper from being something much more radical and scarier. Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the Courts of Chancery, and Miss Flite’s birds Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach: it seems just a tweak in mood from being Kafka. And one particular chapter, the death of Krook, is not just grotesque, it’s genuinely and stomach-turningly nasty.

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that some aspects of a book age better than others, but I still find Dickens a bit schizophrenic. And I know Bleak House is one of his darker books, but even looking at his work generally I think that his enormous popularity, his firm place in the canon and his sentimentality tend to disguise the fact that he’s a much odder writer than his image suggests.


Galapagos pics

I finally got round to uploading some photos from the Galapagos to Flickr. The whole set is here. It includes some sealions:


and of course tourists:


Well, I’ve pre-ordered my Wii and a copy of the new Zelda from Amazon. Which I think is exciting, even if none of my readers do.

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Red Kites

I went down to visit my brother in Cheltenham yesterday. It served as a reminder of how genuinely lovely the English countryside can look. At this time of year, when it’s too often grey and dismal, it’s easy to start wondering why anyone able to leave still lives at this latitude. But yesterday was the best kind of clear bright autumn/winter morning and the south of England was looking its best. It’s not the most spectacular landscape in the world, but with the autumn leaves and gently rolling fields it was a pleasure to drive through.

The pleasure was enhanced because the motorway passes through the Chilterns, a pleasant enough area which now has a special treat: red kites. Not bits of cloth on string, but the big, broad-winged russety bird of prey with a long forked tail. When I started birding, red kites were one of our rarest birds – at one stage they were reduced to 45 pairs – and to see them you needed to make a special trip to remote wooded valleys in central Wales. Even then, their exact nest sites were a closely guarded secret.

The Welsh kite population has been growing; there are a few hundred pairs now. But there has also been a large reintroduction program in England and Scotland. The first place it started was the Chilterns, and we must have seen at least a dozen kites as we drove through. I just can’t think of anything more cheering than the idea of the red kite becoming a common bird again. Not only is it probably our most beautiful raptor, it has a special glamour for British birders my age. I guess if it becomes common enough it might be devalued a bit, but even if it loses its special status as a rarity, it’ll never lose its beauty.

picture © Foto John

And the kite once was genuinely common: it scavenged for rubbish (alongside ravens!) in the streets of Tudor London, just as its relative the black kite is a scavenger today in Istanbul and Delhi. There are a load of references to kites (sometimes as ‘puttock’) in Shakespeare, including this immortal bit from The Winter’s Tale:

“My traffic is sheets; when the kite builds, look to lesser linen”

which refers to the kite’s habit of stealing bits of fabric to use as nest-buiding material. Apparently, with the new growth of kite numbers, a new generation of people are learning the hard way that if you have kites nesting nearby, your underwear may not be safe on the washing line.



  • “Abuja’s airplane house, as it has come to be known by its inhabitants and amazed passersby, has emerged haphazardly over the years as a rare triumph of architectural whimsy in this sleek, modernistic West African capital.”