Milady Steps Out – The Beacons Way

I’m taking a brief trip away from the Boudoir to spend a few days here in Wales between Christmas and New Year. I have managed to include a gentle walk in the Brecon Beacons. We parked the car near Craig-y-nos Castle and approached the Beacons Way after a  meander around the Craig-y-nos Country Park.

Craig-y-nos Castle was the former home of the world famous nineteenth century Italian opera singer Adelina Patti (1843-1919). It stands above the steep ravine of the River Tawe.

Simon Jenkins, in his book ‘Wales: Churches, Houses, Castles‘, writes of her “She performed before emperors, tsars, monarchs and tycoons and was paid 5,000 gold dollars for one performance of La Traviata in Boston … The daughter of a Sicilian and a Roman, she first married Ernest Nicolini, Napoleon’s equerry, then a French tenor, then, at the age of 56, a 30-year-old Swedish ‘nobleman and masseur’.” Jenkins then asks “So how did this remarkable woman come to live in a dark and wet corner of the Brecon Beacons, in a house with Wagnerian name of the ‘rock of the night’?” This came about through her friendship with Lord Swansea who brought her to the Tawe Valley where she fell for the house. In 1878 at the age of 35 she moved in. The fresh air was good for her lungs. Ten years later she had a theatre built at the house and enjoyed entertaining locals and the famous alike. She died here in 1919 but is buried at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

The house fell into disuse, was for a long time a geriatric hospital and is now a wedding hotel. The theatre still exists and is occasionally used for operatic performances.

Our walk took us through the country park which had once been the pleasure gardens of the house. It appears that these may be gradually being re-established. There are a couple of small meadows, a lake and a fishpond in the park but mainly it consists of woodland – beech woods, conifer stands, rhododendron walks and pine woods. Once out of the park the land, and the Beacons Way path with it, rises gradually and the view opens to reveal the Brecon Beacons at their finest.

Before returning to the car we called at the shop where I spotted an interestingly titled book about about Adelina Patti!

Twenty Five Trees in a Mill

Here in Yorkshire we have two Unesco World Heritage sites. I’m not too sure exactly what is required in order to be appointed to this lofty status – maybe it’s all about preservation. The nearest one to me is Saltaire which was awarded this accolade in 2001. On Monday I took a trip with the Banker to visit one of my favourite local shopping destinations – Salts Mill in Saltaire village.

Saltaire Village from Salts Mill

It was really miserable weather so we decided to give the village itself a miss and head straight for the Mill itself – dodging rain and puddles between the car park and the huge mill door.

Salts Mill and the surrounding model village was built for Bradford businessman and philanthropist Titus Salt and opened in 1853. In 1987 the mill stood empty and it took another enterprising businessman, Jonathan Silver, to buy it and create the 1853 Gallery and Salts Mill as it is today. He suggested to his friend and fellow Bradfordian David Hockney that the Mill might be a good place in which to display some his pictures and Hockney agreed. Sadly, Mr Silver died of cancer in 1997 but the enterprise itself has gone from strength to strength.

Currently there are two Hockney exhibitions. The permanent display in the ground floor 1853 Gallery is the world’s largest display of Hockney pictures. Here you can also see many of the Burmantofts pots (see top picture) and buy art materials and books. The temporary exhibit 25 trees and other pictures will be showing on the third floor until the end of April 2012.

Besides art and related books there is also Salts Diner, Salts Book and Poster Shop, The Home – a shop selling the very best in home ware designs, an Espresso Bar, Carlton Antiques and Trek and Trail outdoor gear shop.

Salts Book and Poster Shop

It’s not easy to decide what to order for lunch!

I’m so lucky to have Salts Mill nearby – it makes a perfect day out.

Finally, here is my own tree with best wishes for a Merry Christmas to all Miladys readers!

Family Matters at Christmas

My trip to Norwich for the weekend coincided with a highly recommended exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum. Luckily I managed to fit in a visit first thing on Saturday morning – before proceeding to other more personal ‘family matters’.

The exhibition, subtitled “The family in British art”, covered a wide variety of media and time periods and was subdivided into 5 sections: Inheritance, Childhood, Couple and Kinship, Parenting and Home. A number of galleries have contributed to the exhibit which will show next year in Sheffield, Newcastle and at Tate Britain. I would love to tell about every picture, installation and sculpture but will just highlight a few which I found particularly relevant or interesting.

Many of the pictures included in Family Matters are from Norwich Castle’s own collection. I know that this is pretty extensive as I have in the past participated in behind-the-scenes tours and there are also many fine works of art in the permanent galleries. John Crome and John Sell Cotman and other Norwich School painters being particularly well represented.

Approaching Norwich Castle

Inheritance.

One of my favourite pictures fell into this category: The Harvey Family of Norwich, c.1820 by Joseph Clover. Outside the gallery, in the Castle Rotunda is a life-size copy of this painting with a few faces missing. So I had a go at filling one of the gaps!

The Harvey Family of Norwich, plus one!

In addition there’s The Descent of King James I by an unknown 17th century artist – a kind of visual family tree and right up to date is a 3 screen video installation by Zineb Sedira featuring 3 generations of one family who speak Arabic, French and English in turn.

Childhood

I loved the Gainsborough painting of his Daughters Chasing a Butterfly (c.1756). The butterfly is said to denote fragility and one of the daughters, Mary, was named after a previous daughter who had died two years earlier.

Picture credit 

Bang up to date was a Grayson Perry vase made in 2000 and titled Difficult Background. Look past the innocent 1950s children in the foreground to horrors of war, burning buildings, naked figures.

Couples and Kinship

To me the most touching of all the pictures was Batoni’s “The Hon. Thomas and Mrs Barrett-Lennard with their daughters Barbara Anne” (1750). Thomas and Anna Maria Pratt had married in 1739. Their daughter Barbara had died in 1749 and to console themselves they had taken a European tour. In Rome they commissioned Pompeo Batoni to paint their portrait and to include (using a miniature of her likeness) their daughter.

Walter Sickert’s “Ennui” depicts another couple but in what appears to be a totally restrained relationship. It depicts “a sense of suffocating boredom” but is in fact a posed picture using as models a friend of Sickert’s and his own maidservant.

Picture Credit

Parenting

We have a print on our staircase of “Melanie and me swimming” by Michael Andrews (1978-9). Our print measures about 38cm square. The actual painting is about 2m x 2m. It’s based on a holiday photograph taken years earlier of the artist teaching his daughter to swim.

Several other pictures in this section interested me – not least David Hockney’s painting of his parents (1977). I recognised the Habitat folding chairs! We bought these very chairs that same year – the year we got married – for our kitchen. We’ve still got them and use them now and again when we number more than 4 at the kitchen table.

Picture credit 

Home 

Finally the section titled ‘Home’ like the others included a right mixture of interpretations! Several were photographs including one by Thomas Struth (a German photographer born in 1954) called “The Smith family, Fife” (1989). I had only earlier this week read an article in the New Yorker about Struth and his National Portrait Gallery photo of The Queen and Prince Philip commissioned for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee next year. You can read the article here.

Photo credit

The curator poses some thought-provoking questions. “What makes a house a home? Is home a real place or just a dream of intimacy? Can we ever return home, or is it always somewhere irretrievably in our past?”

With these thoughts on my mind I then proceeded to Family Matters of my own and here are four generations of my family in Norwich.

Neglected classics – but not any more thanks to Persephone Books.

“Persephone Books reprints neglected classics by C20th (mostly women) writers. Each one in our collection of 96 books is intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written.”

As you know I love to sit in my boudoir reading. Some of you may have noticed the uniform grey bindings of the books on the shelves just behind my chair.

Persephone Books produce the most beautiful books, ever – totally thought through with care from beginning to end – from the simple grey covers to the endpapers to the quality paper and print to the Forewords and Afterwords written by well-known authors and others relevant to each book’s content or its provenance.

Each book comes complete with its own bookmark.

As long as you keep buying the books – is that a problem? – they send out a lovely printed newsletter “The Persephone Biannually” free of charge twice a year. In the past it was “The Persephone Quarterly” and  so I have to wait a bit longer these days for my new copy to arrive – Spring/Summer in April and Autumn/Winter in October. The Biannually is always accompanied by a new bookmark.

If you request a copy they’ll also send you their latest annual catalogue. Generally this is published to coincide with the Autumn/Winter magazine.

The publishers operate from their own shop premises in Lambs Conduit Street in Bloomsbury which are a delight to visit. Besides their own books they sell copies of the 50 books which they wish they had or wish they could publish and a selection of relevant secondhand  titles too. Besides books there are some household textiles, some pottery, cards, postcards and their notebook for sale.

Not all of the books are fiction – there’s some cookery, a gardening book, a book about The Sack of Bath in the 1960s, personal memoirs, biography. I certainly don’t have them all. Books can be ordered online, bought from the shop and from good booksellers. For a small extra payment they’ll gift wrap any book. They make perfect presents.

To keep your interest, just in case it is beginning to wane between book publications, you can sign up for an online Persephone Post to drop into your Inbox every day – mine arrives about 9pm each evening. There is also an online book group forum with a new book under discussion each month and you can receive email offers occasionally.

Then there are the real live discussions, talks, films, tea parties and book groups – usually held in London but they have been known sometimes to travel out of town – even as far as Scotland – and once they even went  to New York – to promote their wares and meet their customers.

And what’s best about them is that it was through them that I joined my lovely online reading group of friends around the world in 2004. I have met many of the members, mainly in the UK and mainly in London but also in Stratford upon Avon, Edinburgh, Berlin, Potsdam, Chicago and Massachusetts!

What’s my next Persephone read? In the new year I’ll be reading, along with the group, the latest Dorothy Whipple book to be republished in a smart grey cover – Greenbanks PB95. I already had an ‘original’ copy of the book!

Christmas Traditions – a Trip with Lunch

Each year I spend a special day with a friend during the run up to Christmas. In the past we’ve gone on a hike and had a lunch or combined with something cultural. Last year we hiked along the River Wharfe and ended up with lunch at The Devonshire Fell Hotel at Burnsall. In previous years we’ve been to The Yorkshire Sculpture Park where it’s possible to walk for a few miles before taking lunch in their lovely light and airy first floor restaurant. This year was no exception but instead of the walk/hike part we took the train to Manchester and visited The Manchester Art Gallery which is currently showing a Ford Madox Brown exhibition; subtitled “Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer”. Earlier this year I met with friends for an Art Fund visit to the city which included a tour of The John Rylands Library and should have included a visit to the Ford Madox Brown murals in Manchester Town Hall. However another event took precedence over ours and we had to make do with a ‘Behind the Scenes’ tour of the town hall.

The Last of England by Ford Madox Brown

(http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4b/Brown_last_of_england.jpg)

During the 1990s I did a course in Victorian Studies which included a Victorian Art module. I can’t say that I love the Pre-Raphaelites but I did find the study of nineteenth century paintings interesting because they are laden with symbolism. Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893) was never a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but he did influence them through his ‘primitive simplicity’ style of the age before Raphael.

Emma Hill (Study for The Last of England) 1852.

Ford Madox Brown produced a prodigious amount of work in many forms and media. There are some beautiful sketches and drawings and several very famous paintings many of which are from the Gallery’s own collections, from the University of Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery and Birmingham Art Gallery. The most famous and featured here are Work and The Last of England (above).

The exhibition is divided into themes around FMB’s life and work including: The Artist and His Family, The Early Period, The Change of Direction, The Landscape Painter and The Portrait Painter. Perhaps of most interest to me was The Storyteller theme where the drawings and paintings depict characters from literature as in his King Lear series of drawings and his paintings of the origins of literature - Geoffrey Chaucer reading the ‘Legend of Custance’ to Edward III and his Court and Wycliffe Reading his Translation of the Bible. There are illustrations from the works of Lord Byron; significantly his Manfred on the Jungfrau and from Victor Hugo’s poem ‘A un passant’ – The traveller.

The Traveller

(Source : http://hoocher.com/Ford_Madox_Brown/Ford_Madox_Brown.htm )

Manfred on the Jungfrau

(Source : http://www.manchestergalleries.org/the-collections/search-the-collection/display.php?EMUSESSID=12973dc2d3d45aa915cf27ebd35dd39f&irn=654 )

On our way out of the gallery we caught sight of a new Grayson Perry exhibit so looks like I may be making a trip back to Manchester in the new year. Who knows?

And as we left the gallery the heavens opened and we made a mad dash for the tapas bar – Evuna – a couple of streets away where our weather woes were soon forgotten!

On our way home though we did express our relief to each other that we had chosen to spend our day in a gallery rather than on the hills – we got wet enough without!

Christmas Past: 400 Years of Seasonal Traditions in English Homes, plus Seven Years of Friendship

It’s becoming an annual Christmas tradition to meet up with some of my fellow online book discussion group members around the very beginning of December. Last year 10 of us planned to meet up at the London Review of Books Cake Shop on Bury Street near The British Museum. Then the snow fell … and fell and fell … so that in the end we were much reduced in number. Those who made it were mainly from way outside London – me from Yorkshire, also Bath, Oxford, plus two nearby Londoners from Chiswick and Dulwich.

This year 9 of us descended on The Geffrye Museum in Kingsland Road, east London. We’d booked a table in the restaurant to meet formally for lunch at 2.30pm. Travelling down from Leeds for the day this arrangement suited me fine. In fact I made the booking myself, just to make sure it would happen!

Christmas at the Geffrye Museum

The weather was certainly kinder to us this year. Although there was rain I hardly noticed it as almost all of my time was spent under cover. The Museum consists of a series of period rooms which at this time of year are decorated for Christmas according to the period. We didn’t really have much time to study the rooms in any depth as our main reason for being there was for lunch, book swops and natter. Our suburban London and Essex members had no problem getting here this time and Eurostar behaved itself so that our member living in Brussels was able to join us as well.

Two tall piles of book swops disappearing fast!

What happens is this. There are two parts to our celebration apart from the meal and tea. Those who wish to do so bring a gift-wrapped book – one they think that it will be unlikely that others will not own or will not have read – not an easy challenge but it was successful. These are all collected up and then the bag full is passed round so that we can each have a ‘lucky’ dip. This we did between courses i.e. after the Geffrye Pie but before the Christmas pudding. I’m now the owner of “Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm” by Stella Gibbons. It’s a collection of short stories previously published in magazines such as The Lady, The Bystander, Good Housekeeping and now reprinted in a lovely new paperback edition by Vintage.

We also bring along some unwrapped swops and throw them all into the ‘ring’. These made two fair-sized piles which we put aside until after we’d finished eating. There is none of that “After you Cecil” “No, after you Claude” – we speak up straightaway when we see a book we should like to have. The picture shows a much-diminished pile but by the end there were just 2 books left to donate to the charity shop.

Long may this ‘Countdown to Christmas’ tradition last!