Tuesday, August 31, 2021

a very quick trip to Liverpool

A very, very quick trip to Liverpool for research purposes - to see Millais's An Idyll of 1745 - skied so badly in the Lever Art Gallery that one could hardly see it properly at all (my enthusiasm for keeping C19th styles of picture hanging fades rapidly when one wants to see something up close), and Maurice Greiffenhagen's toe-curling An Idyll in the Walker Art Gallery (yes, I'm writing a piece about Idylls ... and ecology ...).  But of course there was time to see other stuff too: various soap-and-cleanliness stuff at Port Sunlight (I hadn't realized, incidentally, until purchasing today Brian Lewis's "So Clean."  Lord Leverhulme, Soap, and Civilization that there is a whole complicated colonialist narrative around him involving the Belgian Congo, the South Pacific and the Island of Lewis).  And he collected some very strange sculpture ...

And then in the Walker I found an Arthur Hughes with both lichen and an inscribed tree ...

and masses more Victorian scuplture

(and of course, Victorian architecture on the streets).

But what truly struck me was Liverpool's artistic acknowledgment of its past: its wealth built on slavery and then its proximity to the Lancashire cotton trade, above all.  However have I not previously known about Cumbrian artist Paul Scott? - wonderfully politically imaginative; using - here - transfer art to mimic old Wedgwood style, but with images bringing out the local past, environmental wreckage, and so on.

And then, outside, in the grey dank summer air, various statues have been re-dressed through the "redressing" project - here is Gladstone,

and here, Queen Victoria.

Part of me was on a hasty prospecting trip - would it be feasible to bring a group of students here, as part of a Victorian Britain and the World course?  I'll be back, I'm sure ...


Monday, August 30, 2021

meet my great-grandparents

One of the excellent things about staying with my father during the last ten days has been the unearthing of a whole lot of family photos I've never seen before.  Here are William and Sarah Barber - Sarah, also known as Jennett (my middle name is Jennet, thanks to her, though a "t" inexplicably got lost somewhere along the way) - my father's maternal-side grandparents.  He remembers William, and knew Jennett reasonably well - after all, from the age of about 9, he and his mother and brother went to live with them, although William died fairly soon after that.  They are likely in Sheffield here, although they moved around a good bit after that, since William was a Railway Detective with the Midland Railway (maybe my love of detective fiction can be traced back to him?).  He was born in Walsall, son of a silver-plater, and fought in the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War before marrying Jennett.  She came from East Rudham, in Norfolk, where her father was an agricultural laborer - and most likely with the agricultural depression of the late 1870s onwards he moved to Sheffield, where he worked in a steel mill.  I've no idea how the two met.

I just think this is a remarkable portrait because it - about two by three inches - seems to predate the box camera, yet it's not a studio portrait.  It's unusually informal - at least Jennett looks relaxed enough.  I've only seen one semi-relaxed portrait of William, when he was taking part in a fishing competition.  Among other gems an ambrotype and a tinted tintype emerged from the depth of a cardboard box ... a completely unexpected set of treasures.


Sunday, August 29, 2021

fence, flowers, leaves

A fence, on Wimbledon Ridgway, and some privet flowers poking through it.  The smell of privet - which always seems like some indefinable animal pee - takes me right back to walking to my first school: I have no idea why American privet never manages to smell quite so evocatively rancid, but I have to put my nose close to southwest London suburban hedges to get the full transporting experience.


Saturday, August 28, 2021

and all the faded roses shed

Today I turned to some garden work, and found that the Edenic garden was full of blighted rose leaves and wilting stems.  I tried to tidy, and dead-head, and water, but I fear that the plant beds have been lacking in actual care this year.  Blackberries are flourishing, however (we've had homegrown stewed blackberry and apple almost every night that I've been back), and taste infinitely better than the cultivated things that are sold under the name of blackberries in US supermarkets.


Friday, August 27, 2021

ivy and doorframe

Walking down the hill to go to the big Waitrose - on a hunt for the kind of bland brown bread that my father likes, and that has suddenly become hard to locate because of supply chain problems - and these ivy leaves suddenly jumped out at me.  They seem to fulfill the long-ago purpose of this blog - to encourage attentiveness, and find beauty in the very ordinary (ah, yes, always a Ruskinian, at heart).


Thursday, August 26, 2021

radiators in full bloom

There's an annual competition in Wimbledon Village - timed to coincide with the tennis championships - for decorated windows, and a couple of shops always leave their assemblages up for a month or so longer.  The radiator store is always supremely tasteful - purple and green, the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Club colors, predominate - no teddy bears wielding outside rackets here.  I'm not sure it would prompt me to buy a radiator, but I certainly always want to admire the display here.


Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Pegwell Bay, Margate, Pugin ...

First thing this morning - a walk to Pegwell Bay, to see if it looked at all like Dyce's painting: it didn't, really, since the cliffs, behind me, were both more overgrown and mutilated by a tunnel driven through them - and, frankly, seemed lower.  I couldn't work out his vantage point at all ...

But there were still plenty of people poking around in rock pools, and there were limpets and small mussels and whelks everywhere.

Then a bus - a very slow local bus - to Margate, where I wish I could have had much more time: extraordinary sands (by this time the sun was coming out);

and the real object of my trip, Turner Contemporary, with a stunning exhibition of works by Ellen Harvey - and some, chosen by her, by Turner - around the topic of tourism.  But really, it was about loss and ruin and impermanence: of places, of buildings, of landscapes.

Also some huge drawings by Birmingham artist Barbara Walker,

and of course, Antony Gormley's ANOTHER TIME XXI - you'll have to blow up this image to see his head, just visible above the sea (half way to the horizon, just to the right of that speck of a boat).

Then back to Ramsgate, and a quick visit to Pugin's pretty stunning Church of St Augustine - but not time for anything more, because I had to whizz back to London and Skype into a department meeting ...


Tuesday, August 24, 2021


A night away - and here I am in Ramsgate, home of the architect A.W. Pugin - more about Pugin tomorrow, I hope - I'm actually in the room above the one in which Princess Victoria recovered from typhoid fever, and the whole place has the air of faded Victoriana and Edwardiana.   This is what it looked like in Frith's painting of 1852-4, when it was a favorite day trip from London as well as a bathing resort.  That very large house, end-on, just to the right of center at the top of the cliff?  That's where I'm staying.  Above, channeling my inner Martin Parr - is it possible to photograph the seaside any more without doing?

And it's no wonder Turner liked painting here, as well as Margate - this is the moon, tonight.

This was my favorite seagull pic.

The Edwardian lift down to the beach is seeking funds for repair, so that it can open again.

An excellent view from the cliff top.

And here, a curving street down to the sands - with the Rubber Chicken House to the left.  Ramsgate's very likeable, not at all crowded, and slightly strange - much of it seems caught in about 1982.


Monday, August 23, 2021

Flint family lunch #2

Another day, another lunch - this time with my cousin Jon, who is, among other things (like being the same age as me) a terrific print maker.  It's particularly hard when there are just three people at the table, and a couple of us really want to talk about making and looking at art - and about reading John Clare - and yet we don't want to leave my father out of the conversation, so there was a great deal of subject-swiveling.  

In the foreground, close to my plate, is a jar of "chipotle cheese" - courtesy of Fortnum and Mason, or, rather, courtesy of my own ordering from F&M - prior to my arrival - a case of wine, some jars of chutney, and some excellent crackers (I recommend, highly, charcoal and cumin).  Perhaps it goes without saying that I seem to be the only person to like chipotle cheese (I caught my father spooning his portion back into the jar).  There's nothing dairy involved: it's like quince cheese (ditto, no dairy) - that is, an old fashioned English name for a solid jam-like preserve.  I went to the OED online to check why, but of course it's one of the many occasions on which the University Library tells me "Your Connection Is Not Private" and won't let me access it - and it's too late at night for me to tangle with that.


Sunday, August 22, 2021

mending a window

Here's my father doing one of the things at which he excels: mending something.  It turns out that the window panes in the dining room aren't real window panes - they're standard plate glass with wooden bars, like trellis work, stuck on both sides, and one of the sets of crossbars has just fallen off.  

I know that, over the years, I've assembled a number of pictures of my father from behind - and it always makes him look - as it would with anyone - somehow rather alone and vulnerable.  But he's not over-enthusiastic about being photographed portrait-style, and this way (even if I feel in some uncomfortable way as though I'm spying on him) I know that I get to show him as he actually is.  But it's also a great picture of the garden: I love how the tree with a squared off top manages to look a bit like a church tower in an ultra-English fashion (there is, in fact, a chapel about two hundred yards to the left, invisible) - and the grass couldn't look more green and English, because, yes, rain.


Saturday, August 21, 2021

English summer

Today wasn't quite as apocalyptically wet as it threatened - but it was still wet.  Admittedly this rainy view, taken from the dining room, is aided by condensation on the window pane, but it was precipitating beyond that ... At this rate, it's going to take my father's (red) tomatoes rather a long time to ripen ...


Friday, August 20, 2021

flowers, photography, and South London

To Dulwich today, to see the Unearthed: Photography's Roots show - about the place of plants in the history of photography - some wonderful Anna Atkins and Fox Talbot; a stunning 1855 albumen print by a Manchester photographer, James Mudd, of orchids; a stereocard by John Moffat (c.1862) of a "Phantom Bouquet" in a belljar - plants were stripped using chlorate of soda and then bleached with lime and turned into memorial ornaments, which sounds fun to do, though probably not with cats around; some very early Japanese color photography by Kazumasa Ogawa; lots of Karl Blossfeldt images looking like wrought iron; Weston; Cunningham ... and then most recently, a great piece by Richard Learoyd, who makes huge images (in this case of poppies in various stage of decay) using a camera obscura process; and then - below - this Mat Collishaw, Auto-Immolation (2010), of flowers burning themselves up ... I'm glad I took notes: I'm so tired that I could well have walked away and thought it wasn't especially memorable but I now, rather shockingly, realize that it was - although as much as anything indicated that photography has long, long had a tendency to turn plants and vegetables into abstraction.

And then I went for a long walk in Dulwich Park, where there was a stunning wildflower meadow - maybe my Sunflower Project will look like this? - and spent a long time traveling under lowering grey skies.  Oh, and saw a post box with a knitted hat.


Thursday, August 19, 2021

home is ...?

Home is ... seeing the front door of the house I grew up in?  (it's sixty years old this year!)  Or the garden, for which I've felt true absence pangs - for me it's a green and flowery quintessence of Englishness, very unlike the crazed tumbleweeds and amaranth of Eldorado?  Or sitting on a bench overlooking Wimbledon Common?  (my first day back, I always take the same anti-clockwise circle - down the Ridgway, down the High Street - buy myself a coffee at Paul's - and walk down by the common and back down Murray or Lauriston Road.  Wimbledon Village seems to have sprouted an inordinate number of upmarket delicatessans during the pandemic.  Or is it seeing my father himself - person, not place?  (He looks strangely meditative here because he's figuring out a letter on his computer, and didn't know I was taking this).  It's been eighteen months and two weeks since I've seen any of the above - and my absences have never been longer than a couple of months, before.  I'm still taking it all in ...


Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Alice, back in New Mexico

There was time for one last walk this morning, because ... I checked my phone in the middle of the night for messages - a bad habit, I know - and found that my flight had been canceled.  It's probably as good a time as any to find this out, because I got straight on the phone to American, and was rebooked (today, thank goodness) via Los Angeles.  So here I am at LAX, which was decidedly unexpected, with a five hour wait (allowing me to catch up with all sorts of things), and due to arrive at LHR sometime around late lunchtime ... it's very grey and cloudy outside, which makes me feel disappointed on behalf of everyone just starting off at USC, having thought they were signing up for sunny Southern California.

And yes, Alice is wearing a USC jacket, and a very fetching hat.  The hat, indeed, came from a Target in Kailua-Kana, on Hawaii's Big Island - a far cry from White Lotus style resort wear - and is peculiarly well suited to New Mexico.  She's staying in charge of Moth & Gramsci - or they in charge of her ...


Tuesday, August 17, 2021


I'm anticipating, when I return, that the sunflower project will have blossomed into sunflowers.  At the moment the flower interiors - while quite definitely becoming bud-like - seem ominous, sinister, as though they want to claw at one.  There may well be a metaphor there, but I'll try not to look for it.


Monday, August 16, 2021

Albuquerque's "International District"

A quick trip to Albuquerque today to get my nose swabbed - a guaranteed 24-hour turn-around PCR ready-to-fly test ... (fingers crossed).  Driving back down Central, which seemed extremely depressed, and full of vacant shops and businesses - and then I saw a bus stop: "International District."  Er, what?  I could see - looking around - a Mexican restaurant, which hardly counts as International, and a Vietnamese restaurant, which does ... but ... and then a sign on a lamp post, also proclaiming - International District.

This has traditionally been the poorest part of Albuquerque, with the highest crime rate (think Breaking Bad) and was known as the War Zone - unofficially - until 2009, when it was decided to re-name it ... In fact, when settled in the early C20th, there were a lot of African American people there; and a number of Air Force employees, until Kirtland AFB started to build its own housing.  And then - since this was Route 66 - lots and lots of motels (sadly, at least for roadside history, very many of these have been demolished in the last decade), and this was where immigrants tended to settle, especially Vietnamese.  All the same, "International District" seems a crazily grandiose term for urban decay, graced with a weirdly expensive bus stop.


Sunday, August 15, 2021

the illuminated ball

Friends over for dinner - and the occasion to inaugurate a wonderful illuminated ball (and yes, it will change colors, too) that Alice received as a late birthday present.  Its first incarnation was as an extra guest, sitting on an outdoors rocking chair, and then, as we moved inside (wind, rain, general coolth) it became an object of rapt fascination for Moth.


Saturday, August 14, 2021

the countdown is over!

Some 326 days ago, I started to write down in my diary (yes, I still keep a paper one) how many days I still had to go as department chair.  I see that was a Wednesday, and that there was a department meeting that day: I'm sure that fact is entirely coincidental to the beginning of this practice.  Very soon, I was illuminating the declining numbers from time to time; once there were 121 days to go, I started to paint in the squares containing these figures.

I've been exercised, of late, whether I was counting correctly: when did my term as chair end?  My contractual letter said 15th August.  My successor's start date was 15th August.  So we decided - or her generosity decided - that it would be mid-weekend.  This is it!  A margarita was made and drunk at dinner time!

Had I known that this would be three years which would also contain Alice's cancer treatments, my mother's final illness and death, and a pandemic - well, I might have taken a pass on the chance to chair  for the second time.  But it's been a pretty good ride, with the exception of the odd day here and there - although a million times over, I wish that I'd been seeing my colleagues in person for the last sixteen months: one can only take so many Zoom meetings.

And now - the final gestures - writing to the department one last time; removing "chair" from my e-signature, and - YES! - sticking up a bounce-back message on my work account saying that I'm on leave.