Medieval ivory at the Courtauld

The Courtauld Gallery currently has a small but perfectly formed exhibition of medieval ivories.

I do love me some medieval art. And I can really see why someone would collect ivories: they are small but full of character, and I imagine they are beautifully tactile although obviously I didn’t get my hands on the ones in the exhibition.

medieval ivory head

It’s curious to think, as well, of the trade that must have been involved to get the ivory from Africa to Paris, which was the centre of ivory carving.

I wasn’t taking any notes in the exhibition so I can’t tell you anything about this little head. I remember it was only a few centimetres tall; I think it may be a memento mori bead: the other side carved in the form of worm-eaten skull.

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

The Leopard has been on my to-read list for some time and I’m glad I finally got round to it. It’s a novel, written by a Sicilian prince in the 1950s, about the declining aristocracy in Sicily in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The leopard of the title is the Prince of Salina, whose heraldic emblem is a leopard. The novel is centred around him, but he is a curiously passive figure. The world he grew up in crumbles around him and he gloomily but pragmatically goes with the flow.

stuffed leopard

The book is nostalgic and melancholy in tone—in so far as a writer can be nostalgic for something that happened before he was born—and it exhibits a kind of regret for a lost world; but crucially, it doesn’t read, to me, as wishing to turn the clock back. The aristocratic world represents a special kind of elegance and sophistication in the book and the shift of power to a nouveau riche class of merchants as a coarsening of society, but the book doesn’t attempt to claim the aristocrats as especially virtuous or deserving of their position. It reminds me a bit of Proust: not immune to snobbery and the glamour of the aristocracy, but just a bit too clear-sighted to fully buy into it.

It’s low-key and atmospheric and rather wonderful.

» The photo is a stuffed leopard in the Crystal Palace and is from the British Library collection.


  • at the nonist: ‘Though watermarking technology advanced quickly to allow for shades and complexity and greater detail I am personally most fond of these simple and somewhat naive forms which read like ancient pictograms or distracted doodles.’

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2008

It’s that time of year again. I haven’t been looking forward to it particularly because it has just been a rubbish year for birds in the garden. I don’t know why. I’m not sure we’ve ever had quite as many birds since we moved all the feeders onto a pole in open space nearer the house (to make the birds easier to see and keep off the squirrels), but the feeders were busy enough in the summer, so I don’t know if that’s it. Anyway, in the event my results were about comparable to last year, with the difference that last year I felt I’d been really unlucky whereas this year it seems about right.

Blackbird – 3
Blue tit – 3
Great tit – 2
Dunnock – 1
Feral pigeon – 4
Woodpigeon – 4
Magpie – 2
Robin – 1
Wren – 1
Siskin – 3
Chaffinch – 2

No goldfinch, no greenfinch, no coal tit, no great-spotted woodpecker, no jay, no crow. Let alone any of the relative long shots like long-tailed tit or goldcrest. I didn’t even get any parakeets during my chosen hour, although they’re the one bird we’ve been getting a lot of.

For comparison: 2005, 2006, 2007.

If you’re in the UK, you’ve still got until the end of the weekend to take part. Please do!




Welsh rarebit

Cheese on toast is about my favourite comfort food, and today I had the urge to make Welsh rarebit [i.e. Welsh rabbit]. I couldn’t remember exactly what was in it, except that it’s a tarted-up version of cheese on toast. When I found a recipe for it I wasn’t terribly excited, though: it didn’t seem like the extra fuss would be justified by the result. But I made it anyway, and it was nice. The version I made was like this:

Toast four slices of bread on one side under the grill.

In a saucepan, melt together 8oz (220g) of grated cheddar, 1oz of butter, 1 tbsp of English mustard, 4 tbsp of brown ale, a dash of Tabasco and some black pepper.

Put the cheese mixture on the untoasted side of the bread and grill until brown and bubbling.

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Terracotta warriors at the BM

I went to see the terracotta warriors at the British Museum. It’s unusual for them to be on show outside China, so it’s a big event; they have about a dozen terracotta figures and lots of associated material.

It’s certainly worth going to, but the warriors themselves didn’t have the wow factor you might hope for. I may not have seen them in the flesh before, but they are so familiar that it felt like I had. I don’t know why some artworks—paintings particularly?—are so much more effective in the flesh than in photos, while others aren’t. In the particular case of the terracotta warriors, I think part of what makes them incredible is the sheer number of them: the iconic image is of them standing in massed ranks. And although the figures are beautifully made—they are modelled in great detail and famously every one is slightly individual—I don’t know that they are great works of Art. Whatever that means. They were made on a production line basis by prisoners doing forced labour; I don’t know whether that’s relevant.

banliang coin

So for me the most interesting thing was all the context: the stuff about the ‘First Emperor’, his conquest and unification of about a third of modern China and the standardisation of the coinage, weights and measures, and writing system; the architectural details of his palaces; and all the other stuff that was buried with him. It’s not just warriors; the exhibition had terracotta acrobats, civil servants and musicians. And all those things were found at sites away from the main tomb mound itself, which has never been excavated out of respect for the emperor. And there’s probably lots of good stuff in the tomb. This is Wikipedia:

According to the Grand Historian Sima Qian (145 BC-90 BC) [i.e. about 100 years after the event], the First Emperor was buried alongside great amounts of treasure and objects of craftsmanship, as well as a scale replica of the universe complete with gemmed ceilings representing the cosmos, and flowing mercury representing the great earthly bodies of water. Pearls were also placed on the ceilings in the tomb to represent the stars, planets, etc.

I particularly liked the writing, a form called Small Seal Script. It’s the ancestor of modern Chinese script, and they had a sample next to the modern equivalent that allowed you to see the similarities. But the seal script looks like petroglyphs: much more varied than modern hanzi, and sort of more organic, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. Partially the difference is between a script written with a pointed implement and one written with a brush, but it’s also presumably the effect of two thousand years of standardisation. There’s an interesting chart of various writing styles on this Wikipedia page.

One thing I find interesting is the terms which they chose to use to talk about the emperor. Qin Shihuangdi’s achievement in conquering the neighbouring kingdoms and unifying them was undoubtedly remarkable. But he was a megalomaniac despot. He declared himself divine emperor of the universe. His tomb complex—built, remember, by prisoners, and designed to be buried—is just him extending his megalomania into the afterlife. So when the BM refers to him as ‘one of the greatest rulers in history’, I find myself a bit uncomfortable. In some sense it’s clearly true, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t have to live in his empire. And I find the fact that the Chinese aren’t willing to excavate his tomb slightly creepy. It’s hardly a uniquely Chinese thing, of course: it’s easy to get caught up by the romance of someone like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, but it’s hard to argue that they increased the sum of human happiness. I wonder, by the way, since the Chinese government is clearly currently running a campaign of cultural diplomacy, whether they exercise any editorial control over exhibitions like this. I imagine the BM would have been absolutely gagging for the opportunity to host the show, so they wouldn’t need to be heavy-handed about it: just a gentle hint here or there.

» There aren’t really any pictures of the warriors on the BM website, so I found a picture of a Qin dynasty banliang coin from their collection just to have something to illustrate the post.

Night owls

I dreamt last night that owls had started coming to the bird feeders.


Kidneys! Kidneys! Get your kidneys here!

I’m fascinated by this story—that the British government is considering changing organ donation to an opt-out system. So the surgeons would be able to presume consent unless the patient had specifically asked that his organs not be used.

I think it’s such an interesting ethical question. In some ways it would so clearly be a good thing: having organs which could save someone’s life and not using them just seems criminally wasteful. But I don’t think you have to be a full-blown libertarian to feel uncomfortable with the government giving itself the right to treat the bodies of its citizens as a resource to be harvested.

Anyway, at least having the story in the news made me finally get round to registering as an organ donor, something I’ve vaguely been intending to do for years. So even if the law doesn’t change, they can have any squidgy inside bits they have a use for.

Millais at the Tate

I went to see the Millais at the Tate today. After my scathing comments about the Pre-Raphs last year, it may not surprise you that I was a bit half-hearted about visiting this. But I’ve got a Tate membership, so I didn’t have to pay, and the exhibition is about to close; so I thought I’d check it out.

Because it’s the last weekend the exhibition was absolutely heaving with people, which didn’t help, but I tried to give Millais a fair go and see if I could find things to like about his work. And… well, there were some nice paintings there, but he’s not suddenly my favourite painter. He left the Pre-Raphaelitism behind fairly quickly; his painting style loosened up a bit and his subject matter changed first to more contemporary subjects and then to less literal-minded story-telling—both shifts in the right direction—but he never seemed to quite lose the narrative instinct. He couldn’t just paint a picture of a woman in chair, it had to have some story implied: she’s holding a black-bordered envelope and she’s wearing mourning, or whatever.

portrait of Louise Jopling by Millais

So I rather liked the room of portraits, like this one of Louise Jopling, because if you just stopped him from trying to tell a story for five minutes he was a pretty good painter. I’m not quite sure whether there was actually anything wrong with his narrative paintings or if I’m just prejudiced against the whole genre, but I found them stiff and heavy-handed.

As ever, the Tate have put together a really comprehensive website for the exhibition with loads of pictures online, so judge for yourself.

Primarily peculiar

Is it just me or is the American system of state primaries really bizarre?

And I don’t just mean the Iowan ‘we don’t believe in the secret ballot’ thing. The very fact that the results in Iowa and New Hampshire take on great significance is a clear sign that something isn’t working properly. I mean, no disrespect to those two states, but they account for less than 2% of the country’s population between them. And yet if Clinton does badly in New Hampshire, her two losses will be seen as seriously damaging her chances.

And indeed they probably will affect her chances, because there will be a storm of media coverage which will have a psychological impact on voters elsewhere in the country. I know it would be too much to expect that the pundits might treat these early results with the lack of interest they deserve, since it’s their job to express opinions and they’ve been dying to actually have some scores to report on from months now, but it just seems like madness.

I don’t know. I’m only seeing it from outside. Perhaps I just don’t get it. Perhaps there’s some reason why it’s actually a brilliant idea.

» The Purple Finch and American Goldfinch are the state birds of New Hampshire and Iowa respectively. The photo was posted to Flickr by Grant Leavitt.

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