Celebrating the Arts

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Princess Mary, the Princess Royal (1897-1965) was seventeen when World War I broke out in 1914. In normal circumstances, Mary would have been kept under wraps until she was eighteen and come out in Society, but, the outbreak of war changed everything. The House of Saxe-Coburg began to be accused of being far too German, and King George V and Queen Mary found themselves with an image problem.

Princess Mary by J. J. Shannon, R.A. 1914

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We’ve just past November 30th, St Andrew’s Day, the patron saint of Scotland, so it feels appropriate to celebrate the 19th century transformation of that beautiful country.

Flatback Staffordshire figure: Highlander with deer (45 cms. high)

My parents lived in Invernesshire, in the Scottish Highlands, for many years and their house contained a number of things unmistakably inspired by Scotland, one of which was this large flat back Staffordshire figure of a kilted Highlander  with his arm around what looks like a small deer. I’ve always liked it – partly because it looks so absurd. There is a gun dangerously positioned beside the highlander’s left leg pointing upwards, (my brothers and I had to learn the ‘Never, never let your gun/ Pointed be at anyone’ rule before my father, an excellent shot, would allow us anywhere near a gun), and the figure has a horn at his waist. Why? To summon a gillie? Or does it contain gunpowder for the gun, though that seems unlikely.

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The new exhibition Russia: Royalty & Romanovs at the Queen’s Gallery, has all the splendour one would expect with Fabergé eggs and other objets d’art but the initial contact between the two countries was in the late 17th century, and low key.

1914 Faberge Mosaic egg and the surprise inside it, showing the profiles of the Tsarina’s five children

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Gold has always been a key to power: it doesn’t corrode, so it holds its value, and, as every ruler knows, access to gold is essential for paying armies and controlling the state. Furthermore, in skilled hands, this precious metal can be transformed into beautiful and desirable objects which, in turn, help to cement alliances, reward allies and demonstrate the power of the ruler.

The Goldsmiths’ Company’s leopard’s head symbol entwined with vine leaves on the mantelpiece in the Court Room (Photo by Elizabeth Hawksley)

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Illuminating the Dark Ages is no easy task, as I discovered when I went to the British Library’s new Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition. There are a lot of illuminated manuscripts, most of them beautiful, but what, exactly can they tells us about that troubled period? A surprising amount, as it happens.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the glories of Anglo-Saxon craftsmenship. This illuminated manuscript was produced in the monastery on Lindisfarne in 715-720 AD. Its sophisticated designs owe much to Celtic art.

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I have long been fascinated by the Victorian age. It was a time of huge contrasts, as well as social mobility- certainly for men. But what about women? At the beginning of the Victorian age, they had no legal existence, they couldn’t vote, nor have a bank account, and what work opportunities they had, in factories or shops, say, were were less well-paid than men. As for any more professional position – forget it. The choice of jobs for most middle-class women was being a governess or lady’s companion for, at most, about £35 a year, or, for a few talented writers, actresses, artists or musicians, you might be able to make a decent living, if your father or family were also in the same profession.

The Awakening Conscience 1853 William Holman Hunt, Tate Gallery

However, there was an alternative – a shocking one; become a mistress.

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I came across this little garden next to Embankment tube station one icy day in March and I was struck by the number and variety of statues and fountains. Why was a languorous bronze female draped up the side of an obelisk in an attitude of extreme grief? And what was the statue of a soldier riding a camel commemorating? Not to mention Sir Wilfrid Lawson, Bt, whose friends erected his statue ‘in loving and grateful remembrance of his splendid leadership and of his pure and unworldly life’? I vowed to return with my camera when it was warmer.

The Antique Bronze van; John and William complete the statues and monuments’ annual clean

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This year’s summer exhibition at Buckingham Palace, which celebrates the Prince of Wales’s 70th birthday, features his personal selection of over a hundred objects from the Royal Collection together with works by young artists who have trained with his three arts charities: The Royal Drawing School (2000), The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts (2004) and Turquoise Mountain (2006). These provide top quality training for young people in a number of traditional arts across the world.

 

The Prince of Wales visits the Royal Drawing School, Shoreditch. c. Arthur Edwards

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The Queen’s Gallery’s new exhibition, Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India, 1875-6, examines a largely forgotten episode in the thirty-four-year-old Prince of Wales’s life, and one which is full of surprises.

1. Perfume holder in the form of a lotus flower presented by the Maharaja of Jaipur. A hidden mechanism allows the petals of the flower to open, revealing a red and yellow enamelled cup. It is made of gold, enamel, diamonds and pearls.

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I’ve just collected a box containing nine books from the library of a ninety-three-year-old cultured and elegant lady I’d known for many years who died last year. She left a number of her books and runs of architectural magazines to various museums and institutions, and the rest were to be shared out among her many friends. A few months after the funeral, I got a book list of well over 1500 books – I could choose as many I liked and it was, more or less, first come, first served.

The experience of looking through the huge list, printed in minute 8pt, was a bit like exploring Aladdin’s cave, with dash of delving into a bran tub. All I had were the titles and author; I had no idea whether the book was large or small, paperback or hardback. They were divided into sections covering the Contessa’s areas of interest: Architecture, Italy, History (social and cultural), the Arts, European Royalty, etc. and a small selection of fiction.

THE ETRUSCANS: History and Treasures of an Ancient Civilization

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