Tag Archives: art

#BookReview ‘Stanley and Elsie’ by @nicolaupsonbook #literary #art #historical

Nicola UpsonMy knowledge of English artist Stanley Spencer was sketchy to say the least when I started reading Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson. This is a biographical novel that walks a difficult line between true fact and imagined conversation and walks it with skill, delicacy and drama. Definitely a novel for anyone who loves art.

Upson takes us into the Spencer household at Chapel View, Burghclere after the Great War when Elsie Munday starts work as a housemaid. Stanley Spencer has been commissioned to paint the inside of a chapel; his wife Hilda, also a painter, minds their young daughter Shirin. Through Elsie’s eyes we see the lives of this family, their ups and downs, the artistic differences, the selfishnesses of Stanley and Hilda, smoothed by the tact, diplomacy and efficiency of Elsie. The title could make some people assume Stanley and Elsie were romantically attached but theirs is a master/servant relationship that deepened into mutual respect and friendship. Stanley, selfish, focussed, is a difficult master, a difficult husband, and Elsie finds herself caught in the middle of disputes between husband and wife. Often she is exasperated with both of them. Instead she becomes indispensable to the household.

Upson gives us an insight into the lives of this family, their daily tasks, the squabbles, the unexpected joys. She combines small inconsequential details of painting with, through Elsie’s growing appreciation of art, the big picture destruction, grief and lasting devastation of war on Stanley’s generation of men. Upson is excellent at portraying place; the Spencers move between Burghclere, Cookham and Hampstead Heath as their marriage disintegrates, a separation complicated by Stanley’s obsession with another woman. No one could have forseen the consequences of this obsession. Stanley is selfish and self-absorbed, Hilda also but to a lesser degree; both can be loving with their children one minute and dismissive the next. At times, neither are particularly likeable; Elsie is the one who picks up the pieces.

Elsie is the core of this story. As narrator we not only see the Spencers through her eyes, we also see her grow from young girl to competent, confident young woman.

The ending was under-whelming but I see it must have been difficult to know how and when to end the novel.

A delightful read. I particularly enjoyed picturing the paintings in my mind as I turned the pages. Reading Stanley and Elsie makes me want to visit Sandham Memorial Chapel near Newbury, Hampshire, now a National Trust property, and also to explore Upson’s other novels.

If you like this, try:-
The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain
The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt
Life Class’ by Pat Barker

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Book review: Toby’s Room

Pat BarkerAs the second book of a trilogy by Pat Barker, this can be read also as a standalone novel. The Toby of the title is the brother art student Elinor Brooke, whose story is told in Life Class. This story starts further back in time with a secret shared by the siblings, something not hinted at in the first book. In fact this whole book is about secrets, things hidden for shame, war too horrible to talk about, fear and emotions to be ashamed of, and things simply not spoken. Society was very different then, pragmatism coloured everyday lives, people did what they had to and tried to forget the bad things.

Toby is reported ‘Missing, Believed Killed’, a parcel of his belongings is returned. Elinor believes the true story is being hidden and enlists fellow art student Paul Tarrant – who returned from Ypres injured and is now an official war artist – to help. She believes another war artist, Kit Neville, who served with Toby, must know the truth but refuses to say. Kit suffered a horrific face injury and is being treated at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup. Visiting Kit there they find not only Kit but Henry Tonks, their intimidating professor at the Slade School of Art.

The facial reconstructions at Sidcup are well documented, not least by the medical drawings of patients by Tonks and his team. Once again, Barker uses a true story and seamlessly inserts her fictional characters. And yet again, Barker combines a study of individuals at war while considering the role of art in conflict. As official war artists, Kit and Paul struggle with the limitations they are given, the portrayal of reality is forbidden. As I read every page of this book, the image which stayed in my mind was Paul Nash’s ‘We Are Making a New World’ (see below).

Pat Barker

(c) Tate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Click here to read my review of Life Class.

For more novels about the Great War, try:-
‘Stay Where You Are and Then Leave’ by John Boyne
‘The Mysterious Beach Hut’ by Jacky Atkins
‘The Ways of the World’ by Robert Goddard

‘Toby’s Room’ by Pat Barker, LifeClass trilogy #2 [UK: Penguin] Buy now

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Book review: Life Class

Pat BarkerPat Barker is one of my top five novelists. She writes sparingly with not a word wasted, but creates a world so real with detail and characterization. Life Class is the first of her #LifeClass trilogy of novels which tell the story of brother and sister Elinor and Toby, and Elinor’s fellow art students Paul and Kit, through the Great War. I first read this book when it was published in 2007 and devoured it. I have re-read it now to refresh my memory of the story and characters, before I read the newly published third volume of the trilogy, Noonday.

The story starts in 1914 in a life-drawing class at the Slade School of Art in London. The class is taken by Professor Henry Tonks, a real-life character, artist and surgeon. Barker weaves her fictional story around the true story of Tonks, the Slade, and the outbreak of the Great War. For student Paul Tarrant, the presence of Tonks is intimidating, as he struggles to find his identity as an artist. This is a novel about young people and their journey from youth to maturity via art and love, brutally influenced by the horrors of war. Interwoven with Paul’s story – he volunteers as an ambulance driver and goes to Ypres, working in a hospital – is that of Elinor Brooke, fellow art student. Elinor’s journey to adulthood is different, given that she is a woman at a time when middle-class women are not expected to have a career. She remains in London, continues to paint and mixes with the society group of Lady Ottoline Morrell, another true character, mixing with pacifists, conscientious objectors and the Bloomsbury Group.

Essentially, this is a triangular love story set into the structure of war. As the students struggle to define themselves as artists, their safe world collapses around them and the abnormal becomes normal. As Paul undertakes gruesome nursing tasks, he questions the purpose of war art and what it can achieve. As his life becomes surreal, so he is cast adrift from his former life without context to judge either his ability as an artist, or his humanity in the face of war. Are some things simply too horrific to paint?

My own copy of Life Class has the most beautiful cover [left]. Pat BarkerThis is the first in Pat Barker’s #LifeClass trilogy.

If you like ‘Life Class’, try these other Great War novels:-
‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry
‘The Lie’ by Helen Dunmore
‘Wake’ by Anna Hope

‘Life Class’ by Pat Barker, LifeClass#1 [UK: Penguin] Buy now

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Book review: How to be Both

Ali SmithI admire Ali Smith, own quite a few of her books, so it was without hesitation that I stared to read How to be Both, knowing it was an ‘experimental’ novel, a twisting, spiralling tale which has been shortlisted, longlisted, and won awards up the ying-yang.

But, I wasn’t prepared for the first 20-30 pages [it’s difficult to be accurate on a Kindle] which completely lost me. Complete non-sequiturs, verse, stream of consciousness. Rambling, with little context. If it had been an unknown author I would have run out of patience, but it’s Ali Smith so I stuck with it and fell into the story of Francescho. The writing is beautiful, atmospheric, still a little short on fact for me: a child [boy or girl?] with artistic talent, whose father is a skilled brickmaker. The story of the child Francescho twists and twirls with that of the adult Francescho, a Renaissance painter of frescoes, who in his own quiet way challenges the status quo.

If you love books about artists, you will enjoy this one. In a brothel, Franchescho paints the women rather than laying with them, and becomes known for this. As he paints, he remembers the words of ‘the great Alberti’. “The great Alberti says that when we paint the dead, the dead man should be dead in every part of him all the way to the toe and finger nails, which are both living and dead at once : he says that when we paint the alive the alive must be alive to the very smallest part, each hair on the head or the arm of an alive person being itself alive : painting, Alberti says, is a kind of opposite to death…”

Just at the point when you wonder where Francescho’s story is going, Part Two starts. And what a contrast. 21st century. George is a modern-day teenager, grieving for her mother, remembers a visit they made to Italy because her mother was drawn to see a fresco by an unknown artist. There, they discover elements of the fresco which we saw Franchescho paint, their modern-deay interpretation, and Franchescho’s reason for painting them.

Through George’s eyes, and through her conversations with Mrs Rock, the school counsellor, we see the binary nature of the world: boy/girl, truth/lies. Is this the ‘both’ of the title? Mrs Rock says a truth teller is “usually someone with no power, no social status to speak of, who’d take it upon themselves to stand up to the highest authority when the authority was unjust or wrong, and would express out loud the most uncomfortable truths, even though by doing this they would probably even be risking their life.”

This is a book to read and read again. Complex, challenging and beautiful, this is not an easy read, it demands concentration, but it is worth it.

If you like How to be Both, try:-
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
‘Girl in Hyacinth Blue’ by Susan Vreeland

‘How to be Both’ by Ali Smith [UK: Penguin] Buy now

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Book review: Girl in Hyacinth Blue

Susan VreelandThe front cover of this book by Susan Vreeland features a painting by Dutch master Jan Vermeer called ‘The Painter in his Studio’. In it we see the back of a painter, brush in hand, studying a young girl in blue, holding a book, who stands by a window.  This real painting was the inspiration for the story.

Scene-by-scene  the story takes you back in time, following through the centuries the owners of the painting which author Susan Vreeland imagines Vermeer was painting . First, we meet a maths master who has a secret. A painting, inherited from his father, which came to him in the Second World War. The painting is passed from owner to owner, sometimes as an inheritance or gift, sometimes as payment of a debt, sometimes stolen. Vreeland tells us the story of each owner, what the painting meant to them and how it affected their lives: for some it means quick money, or guilt, or beauty, or a hidden secret. Effectively this is a series of short stories, linked by the painting.

It is a charming tale, set mostly in the Holland of dykes, poverty and farms. The painting illuminates the lives of everyone who owns it, no matter how briefly. A charming story about how a painting is viewed differently by everyone who sees it, starting with the artist’s intentions as he conceives and executes it. Vermeer says: “A man has time for only a certain number of paintings in his lifetime… He’d better choose them prudently.”

If you enjoyed Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, or Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, you will enjoy this. Susan VreelandTo find out more about Susan Vreeland [above], click here for her website.
To read an excerpt of Girl in Hyacinth Blue, click here.
‘Girl in Hyacinth Blue’ by Susan Vreeland [UK: Headline Review] Buy now

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Book review: The Goldfinch

the goldfinch by donna tartt 7-8-14I knew it from the first page, this was the rare sort of book that you want to go on forever and when you finish it you want to start reading all over again for the first time. My only problem? It’s size: difficult balancing the hardback on my chest as I tried to read in bed while gently falling asleep. This is a book I will keep and re-read and re-read. Buy the book, not the e-book.

Three main reasons why I loved it. I liked Theo, it is his story and Tartt lets him tell it all the way through. No other viewpoint. It is about art and antiques, or specifically one painting and the effect it has on Theo’s life. The possession of it, the responsibility, the guilt, the value. The meaning of the painting itself, the tiny bird shackled by a chain at its ankle. And the painter, Carel Fabritius, student of Rembrandt, died too young in the Delft gunpowder explosion of 1654 when he was 32. And lastly, it’s one of those wide-ranging American novels – New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam – that the Americans seem to do so well and the English are rubbish at [if you can think of a modern English novel that does do it, please let me know because I’d love to read it]. the goldfinch by Carel Fabritius 7-8-14Tartt says she carries a notebook everywhere and is always jotting down ideas and facts. It shows. Each page is crammed with information. I have to admit early on I was wondering if 13-year old Theo would really remember details of a painter called Egbert van de Poel, but it is the adult Theo telling the child’s story so I cut her some slack.

It is about art, fate, the things life throws at us, love and friendship. It takes in alcoholism, drug addiction, art fraud, post-traumatic stress disorder, grief, unrequited love. At the heart of it is a mystery. As Theo’s feckless father, who gambles according to astrology, says: “sometimes you have to lose to win”. And it is chock full with popular references, from Boris referring to reading the ‘Dragon Tattoo’ books to Pippa’s Hunter wellies.

Of the peripheral characters, I loved Hobie, loved Boris. Pippa remains enigmatic to the end. Tartt’s characters are alive, her places are real. She makes you smell the dust. I’ve been to Las Vegas and have ventured beyond the Strip, but not to the outer edges where the desert reclaims the streets and where the teenage Theo and Boris meet. And I’ve been to New York, walked the streets Theo walks, been to the Met [thank goodness, un-bombed], and been to Amsterdam too with its circular canals. And that brings me to the first chapter, and the ending. I was so intrigued by that first chapter, why is Theo in the hotel room, anxiously scanning the Dutch television news. What has he done? What I imagined it to be… I was wrong, but I had to read almost to the end before I realised I was wrong. That’s really good going for a book that is 771 pages long. There is anticipation, numerous twists in the tale, and there is a little over-intellectualising [often the over-serious way of ‘the big American novel’] but nothing that stopped me reading on. For me, the book went on slightly too long, past its natural finishing point. I would have stopped at the end of the chapter where Theo and Hobie meet post-Christmas, post-Amsterdam.

It is a literary success, and a page-turner. A deserved winner of the Pulitzer, for me.

[photo: Beowulf Sheehan-Corbis]

[photo: Beowulf Sheehan-Corbis]

But not everyone thinks The Goldfinch is a classic, according to this article from Vanity Fair magazine.
Click here to read a review in The Guardian which examines Tartt, the enigma.
Kirsty Wark interviews Donna Tartt about The Goldfinch on BBC’s Newsnight, click here to watch on You Tube. On writing, and working in New York’s Public Library, watching people walk by and inventing characters.
If you are in Den Haag, the Netherlands, be sure to see ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius at the Maritshuis. Click here for details.

Other books about paintings? The obvious one is Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring inspired by Johannes Vermeer’s painting of the same name. My mind goes blank after that – do you know any others?

‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt [Little, Brown]