Celebrating the Arts

This year’s exhibition accompanying the summer opening of the state rooms at Buckingham Palace looks at 90 years of style from the Queen’s wardrobe. I always enjoy these Bloggers’ Breakfast occasions, from seeing who else has been invited (this time, the impressive Suzy Menkes of Vogue), the enthusiasm of the curator, and the welcome voucher for tea/coffee and our choice of cake afterwards.

For GR VIs coronation

Princesses’s dresses, robes and coronets for the coronation of King George VI, May 1937

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In this post, I want to look at the curious fact that none of Jane Austen’s heroines (whose ages range between seventeen and twenty-seven) or her heroes (whose ages range from about twenty-four to thirty-seven) have living grandparents. Indeed, that older generation of, say, sixty plus, seems to be missing. Can this be true? And, if so, what difference does it make? To answer these questions, we need a bit of background information about life expectancy in the early 19th century. Edwin Chadwick’s ground-breaking 1842 survey on public health, tells us that the life expectancy of a member of the gentry or professional class in Rutland (chosen as a typical rural location) was fifty-two; and for an artisan or labourer, it was thirty-eight. There are, of course, a number of factors to be taken into account: infant mortality rates, for example, but for the purpose of this post, I’m staying with the basic facts, as near as we can get them.

after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870

after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870

The only young lady in Jane Austen’s novels with a living grandparent is Jane Fairfax in Emma who has the aged Mrs Bates, ‘a very old lady, almost past everything but tea and quadrille.’ I’ll be looking at how old Mrs Bates actually is later.

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Some years ago I saw a rom.com where the American heroine visits London for the first time. She lands at Heathrow and takes a cab to wherever she’s staying – somewhere fashionable with a SW postcode. She peers excitedly through the cab window as Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s Cathedral and Tower Bridge whizz by. I thought: where the hell is the cabbie going? Then the penny dropped: his circuitous route in the wrong direction had nothing to do with the real London; it was a fictitious ‘London’.

Alcazar courtyard 2

The Alcazar: the Spanish Royal family’s summer palace in Seville

I’d always felt much the same about the cigarette factory in Seville in Bizet’s opera Carmen. It must be fictitious. Bizet took his plot from a novella by Prosper Merimee and I doubted whether either of them had actually been to Spain. Merimée probably thought Seville sounded romantic and what was really important wasn’t the unlikely cigarette factory but the romantic toreador at the centre of the story.

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What happened to the Roman temples and public buildings after the fall of the Roman Empire when they suddenly became redundant? The answer is simple: they were robbed for building materials.

C Castellana mosaic

Cathedral church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Civita Castellana: exterior Cosmati decoration (note the gold for added glitter)

Just think how much material there was to take! All over the Roman Empire there were thousands of temples, expensively clad in marble – some of it carved, and with marble or stone columns supporting pediments and roofs of dressed stone. And that was just the temples. Every Roman town would have had its forum, with colonnades, amphitheatre, public baths, and dozens of other public buildings, all made of expensively cut stone and marble.

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I always like to end a visit to a exhibition by walking round swiftly one last time and choosing an object to take home. It doesn’t have to remotely practical – this is Fantasy-land, after all, and I can have anything I like. In the V & A’s exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear I was spoilt for choice.

41 Negligee for Berenice Marlohe

Negligée in silk satin and Chantilly lace, 2012

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A week or so ago, I was invited to the preview of the V & A’s terrific new exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear. Lucky me, I thought,  at last I shall be able to see exactly what a Regency Buck wore underneath his skin-tight pantaloons and superbly-tailored coat.

39 Brass bra & Harem pants 1970

Brass bra and harem pants, 1970

Fortunately, the hunky cameramen wielding tripods and cameras were more transfixed by the 1970s brass bra and harem pants, not to mention the sexy silk satin and lace negligée as worn by Bérénice Marlohe, the femme fatale Bond girl in Skyfall, than by the Regency male underwear on display. The woman standing next to me raised her eyes to the ceiling and muttered, ‘Typical!’ So I was able to study the Regency Buck undressed in peace.

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The Queen’s Gallery has two exhibitions on at the moment. The larger exhibition space is showing  Scottish Artists 1750-1900: from Caledonia to the Continent which I also saw at the Bloggers’ Breakfast preview last week. All the pictures come from the Royal Collection and the exhibition’s subtitle is well chosen – Sir Walter Scott’s phrase ‘Caledonia stern and wild’ comes to mind. I’m concentrating on just four of the paintings which George IV, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought that show their love of Scotland.

Deborah Clarke talks

Deborah Clarke talks about the exhibition

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On Friday, I had the great pleasure of being invited to the Bloggers’ Breakfast at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, to a preview of the new exhibition, Maria Merian’s Butterflies. We had to be there by 8.30am – something of a shock to the system as I discovered that, even at 7.45am, it was standing room only on the Victoria line. Fortunately, a choice of tea, coffee or fruit juice and a variety of delicious pastries awaited us on arrival. There was time to meet the other bloggers, together with the curators of the exhibitions.

1. Bloggers breakfast

Bloggers’ Breakfast

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The V & A’s exciting new exhibition Curtain Up: Celebrating 40 Years of Theatre in London and New York celebrates the creative cross-fertilization between Broadway and London’s West End theatres since 1975. The exhibition rooms have been transformed into a backstage space, full of mysterious shadows and bright ever-changing lights in neon blues and reds. The V & A wants to entice you into a world which is larger, brighter and more glamorous than ordinary life. And, on this chilly February day, it’s more than welcome!

Exhibitiion entrance

Exhibition entrance

Theatrical spectacle is all about creating the right effect: everything is bigger, bolder and more glitzy than in real life, and there’s nothing like seeing the actual costumes from big hits to be struck by their impact.

Phantom 1

Michael Crawford’s suit for Phantom of the Opera

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