Reader, I Murdered Him

Jane Steele
Author: Lyndsay Faye
Published: 22nd March 2016
Goodreads Rating: 3.89 out of 5
Reviewed: March 2017

“Reader, I murdered him.” Jane Steele is a gothic retelling of the renowned Jane Eyre written by the celebrated Charlotte Bronte. Crime writer, Lyndsay Faye, creates an entirely new story whilst appropriating the skeletal structure of the original classic. However, Jane Steele is nothing like Miss Eyre, with whom everyone is familiar. She is far more headstrong and independent. She is also a murderer.

Before readers are discouraged to hear that their beloved Jane is portrayed as a criminal, the murders that occur are more of a homicidal or self-defence nature, as opposed to serial killing. The first death, occurring when she is a nine-year-old orphan, is not her fault, but it prompts Jane’s wealthy aunt to pack her off to boarding school, and thus the similarities with Jane Eyre commence.

Written in an autobiographical manner, Jane describes her years at the virulent school, where she and the other girls experience abuse at the hands of the schoolmaster. As readers will recall, Eyre’s life improves in her later school years, but Jane Steele’s education comes to a premature end, resulting in her fending for herself in 19th-century London.

As the blurb indicates, Jane returns to the house she grew up in after the death of her aunt to become a governess for the current owner’s ward. Mr Charles Thornfield, a bachelor, is Jane Steele’s version of Rochester, minus the wife in the attic. The contents of the cellar are a different matter.

From a romantic point of view, all happens in a similar manner to Jane Eyre, but this is where the comparisons end. With concealed crimes and secrets, as well as an unsolved murder, the story becomes the thriller it initially proposed to be. The incisive Jane Steele takes matters into her own hands – figuratively and literally – as she determines to resolve the unanswered questions.

Although not written with the intent to be comical, the stark contrasts between the original and the retelling create humorous scenarios. The nature of the main character, in comparison with the time frame, a period where women had very few rights, makes the narrative far more exciting and amusing than the earlier novel – although not necessarily better.

Lyndsay Faye maintains the atmosphere of the 1800s with her affinity for eloquent turns of phrases and choice of words. She is a prolific author full of wonderful ideas; her ability to create a new story out of a well-known classic is a formidable skill. What is admirable is the way in which Faye has made Jane Steele a novel in its own right and not merely a rip-off of Bronte’s work.

The skilful composition and wording will likely be loved by all, its only downfall being the reaction of hardcore Jane Eyre fans. Those who wish for the classics to be left alone and not pulled apart by contemporary authors or film directors may adopt a negative attitude towards the publication of Jane Steele. On the other hand, many will love this gothic retelling, appreciate the similarities and enjoy the new twist to the storyline. 

How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen
Author: Joanna Faber and Julie King
Published: 10th January 2017
Goodreads Rating: 4.41 out of 5
Reviewed: April 2017

The highly rated How To Talk books were developed by Adele Faber as a guide for parents, who face daily struggles with their children’s behaviour. Now her daughter, Joanna Faber, and childhood friend, Julie King, are parenting experts and have contributed to the series. This latest addition, How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, is a survival guide for parents with children between the ages of the terrible twos to the semi-civilised-sevens. Covering topics from food battles to sleep issues, parents are bound to relate to something in this book and be able to put some of the advice into practice.

Most of the content encompasses the tried and tested methods Joanna and Julie encourage parents to consider as part of a parenting workshop. Split into topics, the reader is given a set of tools to work with that may help to turn a situation away from a tantrum and a harassed parent. These tools are demonstrated with real-life stories from the Mums and Dads who used them.

As well as the usual behaviour troubles that most children develop, the book also includes ways to cope with children who have sensory issues or are diagnosed with Autism. These youngsters do not process the world the same way as other people their age, which can be very frustrating for parents. Armed with a new set of tools, adults will be able to support their children as they grow up in a world they do not understand and make them feel safe and understood.

Illustrated with cartoons, each chapter ends with a short summary of ideas to try in any situation. By providing these recap points, parents can locate a tool or idea in a moment of desperation and put it into practice immediately. The layout and clear headings offer an easy way of finding the relevant information, meaning that harried parents do not have to skim paragraphs and pages to find what they seek.

By including real-life scenarios, Joanna and Julie highlight that there is no one-size-fits-all when dealing with unruly children. Each child is different and needs to be treated appropriately. However, the experts provide enough information so that when one tool fails, there is another as a backup.

After reading How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, you will feel empowered to tackle anything your child throws at you. Of course, there is no guarantee that you will become a parenting master overnight, but you will be more confident about dealing with the little rascals.

How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen is a book that feels realistic with no psychological jargon to make you feel inadequate. Joanna and Julie are both parents and have had to resort to taking their own advice – and sometimes failing. The writers are human and not childless psychologists who believe they know what they are talking about. So, if you are tearing your hair out and do not know what to do to make your child happy, this How To Talk series is something to check out.

Spontaneous
Author: Aaron Starmer
Published: 23rd August 2016
Goodreads Rating: 3.33 out of 5
Reviewed: April 2017

Dubbed the “funniest book about spontaneous combustion you will ever read” by the acclaimed best-selling author John Green, Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer is a story about growing up and blowing up. Seeing a classmate explode in front of you during third-period pre-calc class is not something you ever expect to happen. Nor do you expect this to be the first of many to randomly occur throughout your senior year, but for Mara, this is her appalling fate.

Mara’s senior year was not all that exciting until the first explosion, but after a few more students from her class spontaneously combust, it is clear she is not going to have a normal final year of school. Only affecting the seniors, Mara and her friends are ostracised from society while FBI agents try to solve the problematic situation. With bombs, terrorists and government conspiracies eventually ruled out, the class is left abandoned to explode at their leisure – although they would rather not!

Mara, with her boyfriend, Dylan, and best friend, Tess, attempts to continue living their lives. They encourage students to start their own school so they can still graduate at the end of the year. But with an increasing number of messy ends, they begin to doubt they will make it that far.

Full of crack-pot ideas that will leave readers laughing, Mara’s dry sense of humour gets her through most of the year, but the painful loss of her friends and acquaintances soon catches up with her. It is hard not to despair when you know you could detonate at any moment.

The easiest way to describe Spontaneous is bonkers, absolutely bonkers. For a start, spontaneous combustion is uncommon for any living creature. Mara’s inappropriate humour and acidulousness only add to the farcical state of affairs, providing a comical and entertaining narrative. However, as Mara begins to acquiesce to her new situation and live as if regularly being sprayed with blood and guts is normal, the story takes a sombre downturn.

Annoyingly, the conclusion of Spontaneous is ambiguous, leaving attentive readers with no answers. Had Starmer not imaged a solution, or was it too difficult to explain? Whatever the reason, it leaves us with a dissatisfying ending.

On the other hand, the ending of a book is only a fragment of the story. The beginning and middle were of the author’s optimum quality. Combining typical teenage emotion and behaviour – romance included – with a horrifying crisis results in a book that will make you “feel all the feels” – to borrow a Mara term – and enjoy every moment.

Spontaneous will entertain young and old adults, although perhaps not the more sensitive reader. With uncensored language and no sugarcoating, Mara gives us all the gory details blow-by-blow (literally). Be prepared for laughter, shock and unadulterated pleasure.

The Inexplicable Logic of my Life
Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Published: 7th March 2017
Goodreads Rating: 4.13 out of 5
Reviewed: February 2017

Over the past couple of years, social media, particularly Tumblr, has been raving over Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s multi-award-winning novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. As a result, I have wanted to read this book to see what the fuss is about. Unfortunately, libraries and bookstores in the UK do not appear to stock any of Sáenz’s novels. When I saw an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) of The Inexplicable Logic of My Life was available to review on NetGalley, I took the risk, having not read any of Sáenz’s work, and requested a copy. I am glad I did. The Young Adult novel turned out to be a thing of true beauty. The prose is almost poetic and full of emotion; it not only tells the story but also makes you feel it.

The narrator, Salvador “Sal”, is beginning his final year at El Paso High School with his best friend, Sam. Normally, the first day of school is something he looks forward to, but he feels different this year. Something within Sal has changed, something indescribable but there all the same. Something that makes punching someone in the face an automatic reaction.

Sal’s dad is gay. Although not his real dad, Vicente adopted Sal into his extended Mexican American family after the death of his mother when he was three years old. He could not have asked for a better parent, but something is niggling in his mind: who is his biological father?

Whilst Sal soliloquizes about his feelings, the reader is introduced to best friend Sam – a girl who, despite an erudite vocabulary, is not afraid to cuss and swear. Sam also understands what it is like question who you are, as does Fito, another friend with terrible relations. Tragic events pull the three together, giving them a new chance at being part of a family despite not being blood-related.

Sal, Sam and Fito try to help each other through their problems, ruminating together over their pasts and contemplating the unpredictable future. Despite each character suffering from grief, their friendship gives them a purpose and encouragement to carry on.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life covers so many themes it is impossible to categorize. Sam, Fito and Vicente are all encumbered with something that could ostracize them from society – their sexuality, race, drug addict parents – but they never let this get in their way. Sal, on the other hand, struggles somewhat, believing he no longer knows who he really is. He questions everything: how does he fit into the world around him? What right does he have to graduate and go to college?

With great efficacy, Sáenz explains through Sal’s voice the importance of believing in yourself, letting yourself be loved, and accepting things for what they really are. All the main characters are trying so hard to belong; they do not realize they always have belonged.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life is a story of grief, death, family, friendship, fathers and words; a graceful, almost lyrical narrative that gets to the heart of human existence and uplifts the spirit. The expressive language has a great emotional impact on the reader – have your tissues at the ready – and resonates within the soul. With quotable lines that you will wish you had written yourself, I guarantee you will love this book.

See You in the Cosmos, Carl Sagan
Author: Jack Cheng
Published: 28th February 2017
Goodreads Rating: 4.05 out of 5
Reviewed: March 2017

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was an American astronomer and cosmologist famed for sending the Golden Record into space, full of sounds from Earth for any living being in the universe to find and listen to. Now, his youngest fan, 11-year-old Alex Petroski, intends to follow in his footsteps, recording sounds and information about his everyday life onto his “Golden iPod”. Told through the transcripts of these recordings, the readers (and the aliens) follow Alex on an unexpected epic journey in which he discovers things about himself that he never expected to.

Alex is a very independent child, having grown up with no father, a mentally vacant mother and a rarely there brother. Despite his young age, he has been taking care of himself and his mother, cooking meals, shopping etc. Now he is taking himself on a journey to another state to attend SHARF – a Rocket Festival – where he hopes to launch his iPod into space. With the help and kindness of strangers, particularly from a silent man named Zed, Alex makes it safely to Albuquerque, New Mexico. However, his journey is far from over.

It is impossible not to love Alex, his naivety and acuity of mind. Disappointed with the failed attempt at sending his iPod into the cosmos, he is distracted by thoughts of discovering more about his long-dead father. With encouragement from Zed and the reluctance of his disgruntled friend Steve, Alex sets off on his mission, recording all his experiences along the way. However, instead of the happy ever after he is seeking, Alex discovers some unexpected truths.

See You in the Cosmos, Carl Sagan is a funny, moving story about an overly optimistic child who, despite his upbringing, has been sheltered from the negativity of the world. Unable to understand his adult companions’ dilemmas, Alex will make readers laugh with his innocent ways of viewing the world. On the other hand, his simplistic view of life will pull on the heartstrings as he begins to realise things are not as straightforward as he initially believed.

Although published by Puffin and therefore classed as a children’s book, See You in the Cosmos, Carl Sagan is much more appropriate for an adult reader. The humour is targeted at those able to understand the innocent blunders of an 11-year-old, which would be lost on a reader of Alex’s age.

The author, Jack Cheng, writes in the style of a child’s speech. Long, breathless sentences, often full of too much irrelevant information, fill up the pages, but this only adds to Alex’s adorableness.

Viewing the world through the eyes of a child, especially one as unique as Alex, gives a new perspective on the trivialities of life. His laid-back personality will make people realise that some things are taken far too seriously or unnecessarily complicated. Without a doubt, Alex will be an inspiration to all.

Be warned, there are references to abuse and schizophrenia, but See You in the Cosmos, Carl Sagan, is a pleasant, hard-to-put-down read that will remain in the mind long after its conclusion.


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Laurence Housman

In 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled a statue of the Suffragist leader, Dame Millicent Fawcett, in Parliament Square, London. Sculpted by Gillian Wearing, it honours the centenary of (some) women winning the right to vote. It is the first statue of a woman to stand in Parliament Square and honours not just Fawcett but 63 other people who supported women’s suffrage, too. The names are inscribed on the plinth next to a small engraving of each person, including four men. One of the men is Laurence Housman, an English playwright, writer, illustrator, and founding member of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and the Suffrage Atelier.

Laurence Housman was born on 18th July 1865 in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, to Edward and Sarah Jane Housman. He was one of seven children, including Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936), who became a classical scholar and poet, and Clemence Housman (1861-1955), an author and illustrator. Housman’s father worked as a solicitor and tax accountant, but his mother passed away in 1871. Edward Housman remarried a cousin, Lucy.

Housman had a close relationship with his siblings, particularly Alfred and Clemence, with whom he enjoyed creative pastimes, such as putting on theatrical performances and creating a family magazine. Meanwhile, Housman’s father turned to drink as his business floundered, leaving the family in financial distress. Fortunately, the Housman brothers received scholarships to study at Bromsgrove School, a local boarding school that allowed day students.

In 1882, Housman attended an art class with his sister, Clemence. The following year, they each inherited £200 from a relative, which they spent on art courses at the Lambeth School of Art and the Royal College of Art in London. Housman’s interest in illustration led to positions at London publishing houses, where he produced the artwork for several books, including Christina Rossetti‘s Goblin Market (1893) and his sister’s novella, The Were-Wolf (1896). The latter was an erotic fantasy featuring a female werewolf.

Housman also dabbled in writing and published several poems, hymns and carols during the 1890s. By the turn of the century, Housman’s eyesight began to fail, so he concentrated entirely on writing. He had already published several fairytales, such as A Farm in Fairyland (1894), but his first major literary success was the novel An Englishwoman’s Love-letters (1900), which he published anonymously. The book initially caused a scandal until the public discovered it was written by a man rather than an Englishwoman.

Many of Housman’s works contained Christian undertones. Aside from novels, Housman penned plays such as Bethlehem (1902), Angels and Ministers (1921), and Little Plays of St. Francis (1922). Once again, Housman caused a scandal for depicting biblical characters on stage, and many plays were only performed privately. Another play, Victoria Regina (1934), caused problems because the Lord Chamberlain, Rowland Baring, 2nd Earl of Cromer (1877-1953), ruled that “no British sovereign may be portrayed on the stage until 100 years after his or her accession.” As a result, Victoria Regina could not be performed until the centenary of Queen Victoria’s accession on 20th June 1937, when it opened at the Lyric Theatre, London.

During his career, Housman published around 100 pieces of work, including an autobiography, The Unexpected Years (1937), in which he discussed his controversial writing. He did not mention much of his personal life in the book due to his homosexuality, which was illegal at the time. Despite this, Housman was quite vocal about his sexuality and invested time in helping homosexuals who were stigmatized by society. Housman joined the Order of Chaeronea, an underground organisation for homosexuals. Housman also founded the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, which later became the British Sexological Society.

Housman identified as a feminist and devoted himself to the women’s suffrage movement, for which he is remembered on the plinth of the Millicent Fawcett statue. In 1909, Housman and his sister Clemence founded the Suffrage Atelier with the artist and author Alfred Pearse (1855-1933), known under the pseudonym “A Patriot”. The Atelier accepted artists and illustrators, primarily women, who wished to use their skills to assist the campaign for women’s suffrage.

The Suffrage Atelier was not the only group producing artwork for the suffrage movement, yet it was the only one to pay its workers. Working as a studio rather than a party or union, the Atelier produced illustrations and designs, which they sold to groups of suffragists or suffragettes. The Suffrage Atelier primarily worked with the Women’s Freedom League, an offshoot of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

One of the posters designed by the Suffrage Atelier emphasised how unfair it was to deny women the right to vote. At the time, women could run for mayor, work as nurses, doctors, teachers and factory hands, or be stay-at-home mothers, yet not vote in parliamentary elections. Conversely, men who had been convicts, “lunatics”, proprietors of white slaves, unfit for military service, or drunkards still retained their voting rights. This poster and many of the Atelier’s publications could be quickly reproduced and circulated using block printing, such as woodcuts and linocuts. Despite limited colours, the pamphlets, posters and banners helped spread the women’s cause across the country.

Housman allowed the Suffrage Atelier to use his house at No. 1 Pembroke Cottage Kensington in London as their base. The building also became a central hub for the suffrage movement, offering women writing lessons and hosting talks by motivational speakers. In 1911, Housman opened his doors as a safe house for women participating in the Census Boycott. Led by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), women declined to partake in the census by either refusing to fill in the census forms or staying out of the house on the designated night. Participants of the boycott used the slogan, “If women don’t count, neither shall they be counted,” to put pressure on the anti-suffrage Liberal Government.

In 1911, Housman compiled a book called An Anti-Suffrage Alphabet, using illustrations by several members of the Suffrage Atelier. Housman aimed to raise money for the suffrage movement through sales of the book, which mocked negative views of women with a short rhyme for each letter of the alphabet.

“R are the reasons why women can’t vote – Lord Carzon has plenty from which you can quote. “Irrefutable reasons,” but while you are quoting don’t mention the countries where women are voting.”

“W’s the washing which woman must do day in and day out, on polling day too. If she wants a day off you had better say “Bosh” and tell her such fanciful notions won’t wash.”

Housman also designed the “From Prison to Citizenship” banner, which the WSPU carried during a procession on 17th June 1911, a few days before the coronation of George V (1865-1936). Known as the Women’s Coronation Procession, the WSPU demanded women’s suffrage in the coronation year. The procession was “the largest women’s suffrage march ever held in Britain and one of the few to draw together the full range of suffrage organisations”. Around 40,000 people joined the march from Westminster to South Kensington, with Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) and Flora Drummond (1878-1949) leading on horseback. Housman’s banner was carried by the suffragettes who had spent time in prison for their militant actions.

Aside from the artwork Housman created, he began dedicating his writing to the suffrage movement. He also edited other people’s work to give it a feminist twist. Housman wrote several newspaper articles that urged women to join the campaigns and penned a series of poems for Votes for Women, the official newspaper of the WSPU. Housman set several of his fictional works in a future where the women’s campaigns, particularly the Census Boycott, were successful.

To persuade other men to support women’s suffrage, Housman formed the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage with several other writers and journalists, including Gerald Gould (1885-1935), H. N. Brailsford (1873-1958) and Israel Zangwill (1864-1926). The league produced a monthly paper through which they persuaded a handful of men to write “Votes for Women” on their ballot papers at the 1910 general election.

Housman frequently spoke at rallies and participated in protests, which resulted in his arrest on more than one occasion. At one rally, Housman read Rudyard Kipling’s (1965-1936) poem Tommy (1890), replacing every instance of “Tommy” with “Women”. ‘O it’s Women this, an’ Women that, an’ “Women, go away.”

Following the First World War, after women over 30 gained the right to vote, Housman and his sister left the capital and settled in Ashley, Hampshire. With less focus on women’s suffrage, Housman concentrated on writing novels, short stories and plays, as well as overseeing the recently established British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology. In 1921, Housman became the Vice-President of the Ethical Union (now Humanists UK), of which many members had belonged to women’s suffrage groups, including the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. The organisation aims to represent “people who seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs”. Housman, who had previously written about Biblical characters and hid Christian themes in his novels, may have seemed like a peculiar candidate for the Vice-President, yet his main focus was improving schools and education, which in some instances had been restricted by the Church.

In 1924, Housman and Clemence moved to Street, Somerset, which remained Housman’s home for the rest of his life. He continued to support the Ethical Union, remaining Vice-President until 1957. On 25th September 1929, Housman delivered a lecture at Conway Hall on The Religious Advance Towards Rationalism. He explained, “while society advances toward rationalism, it should also advance toward religion, but to a religion different from past forms. This religion will derive from human experience … Experience has actually led us, along the path of science, to perceive the limits of scientific understanding: to see that science cannot explain the origin of existence. Science leads, then, to a primordial sense of mystery, which can be called a religious sense. Also, the gospel story, whether historically true or not, advocates love, and love is permanently relevant to mankind.”

In 1945, Housman opened a bookshop in Shaftesbury Avenue, London. Although the shop shares his name, it was founded by the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) in his honour. The PPU promoted pacifism and was closely connected with the Ethical Union. Housman desired the shop to promote “ideas of peace, … human rights and a more equitable economy by which future wars, and all their inherent suffering, might be avoided.” The shop moved to Kings Cross, London, in 1959, where it remains one of the longest-running radical bookshops in the country. Over time, it has started stocking new and used books on feminism, anarchism, anti-racism, anti-fascism, LGBTQIA+ politics, socialism, and nonviolence. It remains a non-profit bookshop and is managed by a trust.

Housman and his sister continued living with each other in Somerset until Clemence’s health began to fail. Housman and his neighbours initially cared for Clemence at home until they had no choice but to send her to a nursing home in Glastonbury. Clemence passed away on 6th December 1955, aged 94. Housman continued to live in their house in Street without his lifetime companion, eventually passing away at age 93 on 20th February 1959.

Following Housman’s death, The Times posted an obituary describing him as an “idealist and iconoclast… a figure of versatile and idiosyncratic distinction.” Whilst Housman did not entirely reject Christianity, the newspaper portrayed him as agnostic. In Housman’s autobiography, he wrote, “One hears a good deal of talk nowadays about the decay of religion; and the Victorian age is spoken of as though it had been an age of faith. My own impression of it is that it combined much foolish superstition with a smug adaptation of Christianity to social convention and worldly ends.” Housman still believed in something, but not the form of Christianity imposed during the Victorian era and used against women’s suffrage campaigners and homosexuals.

Despite Housman’s decades-long campaign for reform, his fame diminished over time, although he has remained an inspiration for humanist organisations. The Millicent Fawcett statue has unearthed Housman’s name, but it is unlikely he will ever receive the same recognition as the suffragists, suffragettes and other campaigners.

Housman wrote at least ten novels, 25 short stories, 55 plays, and several poems and works of non-fiction, the majority of which are now out of print. Housman’s play, Victoria Regina, was adapted for American television in 1961, starring Julie Harris (1925-2013) as Queen Victoria and James Donald (1917-93) as Prince Albert. Unfortunately, there have been no revivals and adaptations of his works since.

I have had pleasures and disappointments; but though the disappointments are perhaps more numerous and present to my recollection than the pleasures, I continue to find life worth having.
– Laurence Housman, The Unexpected Years (1937)


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William Blathwayt of Dyrham

Situated in an ancient deer park near the village of Dyrham in South Gloucestershire, England, is a baroque English country house, once belonging to William Blathwayt (1649-1717). Since its takeover by the National Trust in 1961, the grounds, and more recently, the house, has been open to the public.

William Blathwayt, born in London in 1649, was the grandson of Justinian Povey (d. 1652), a former accountant-general to Queen Anne of Denmark (1574-1619). Blathwayt’s father, a barrister, passed away when Blathwayt was young, and his mother remarried. Fortunately, Blathwayt’s parents, and presumably step-father, came from wealthy backgrounds, allowing Blathwayt to train as a barrister, like his father. In 1665, he was admitted at Middle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court.

Blathwayt’s uncle, Thomas Povey (1613-1705), found him a diplomatic position in 1668 as Clerk of the English embassy at The Hague, the Netherlands. Blathwayt held the same appointment at the Embassy in Copenhagen and Stockholm in 1672 before touring several European countries. When Blathwayt returned to London, he became a Clerk of the Privy Council in Extraordinary and, in 1679, was promoted to secretary of trade and plantations.

During the 1680s, Blathwayt served as Secretary at War, effectively launching the War Office, and was responsible for establishing the charter of the Crown colony of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, which later became the state of Massachusetts. Blathwayt was “very dexterous in business”, as John Evelyn (1620-1706) recorded in his diary, and promoted trade in America. During his career, he also served as the whig politician for Newtown on the Isle of Wight (1685) and Bath (1693-1710).

On 23rd December 1686, Blathwayt married Mary Wynter, daughter of John Wynter of Dyrham Park. When John Wynter died in 1688, Blathwayt gained possession of Dyrham Park, where he built a large mansion house. Using much of his wealth, Blathwayt furnished the building with paintings by Dutch Old Masters and lavish fabrics.

Blathwayt used an existing Tudor building as the basis for his mansion. He commissioned Samuel Hauduroy, a Huguenot architect, to modernise the west front during the 1690s, including an Italianate staircase leading from the terrace to the grounds. In 1698, Blathwayt added a stable block with enough room for 28 horses. The upper floor of the stable contained extra sleeping quarters for servants. Finally, in 1704, William Talman (1650-1719), the architect of Chatsworth House, removed the remains of the Tudor building by reconstructing the east front and adding a statue of an eagle – the family crest – on the roof.

The Blathwayt family continued to own Dyrham until 1956, during which time the majority of the interior decor remained largely the same, except for the addition of furniture by eighteenth-century designers. During the Second World War, Baroness Anne Islington rented the house as a home for evacuees. She redecorated several rooms, which the National Trust have worked hard to return to their original appearance.

Most rooms feature dark wooden panelling decorated with Delft tiles. Through Blathwayt’s royal connection as Secretary at War to William III (1650-1702), Blathwayt had access to a range of Dutch art, including delftware, furniture and paintings. Blathwayt commissioned a purpose-made state bed with crimson and yellow velvet hangings in the Anglo-Dutch style and purchased Dutch vases and such-like. Around the house are hung many bird paintings by Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-95) and still-life and landscapes by other Dutch masters, such as Abraham Storck (1644-1708) and David Teniers the Younger (1610-90).

In a doorway at the end of one corridor hangs A View Through a House (1662) by Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten (1627-78). The painting captures a moment in time, as though a door has just opened, and the viewer is seeing the interior for the first time. A dog and cat, mid-movement, glance at the viewer from the first room, while an open doorway reveals a couple more rooms of the fictional scene. In the middle room, two men and a lady sit beside a window, perhaps negotiating a marriage. On the other side of the glass, a ghostly figure peers in, which many interpret as the lady’s lover, about to interrupt the proceedings and declare his love.

When hung correctly, Hoogstraten’s painting creates the illusion of a long corridor within the house. Blathwayt’s uncle, Thomas Povey, either purchased or commissioned it for his home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, where it attracted the attention of diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703). Blathwayt purchased A View Through a House from his uncle in 1693.

In 1701, Blathwayt added an orangery to the southeastern side of the building. This acted as a greenhouse for exotic plants and fruit trees. In 1800, the English landscaper Humphry Repton (1752-1818) added a glass roof to allow more sunlight into the room.

The orangery served more than one purpose; it helped hide the servants’ quarters from the main house. At the time, the servant quarters were not much to look at, but in the 1840s, they were modernised to make room for a kitchen, dairy, bakehouse and several larders. Servants ate separately from the rest of the house in the Servant Hall, where they were frequently joined by tenant farmers. William Talman, who constructed the east side of the house, added a new stable, which is now used as a tearoom for visitors.

The house is situated in 274 acres of gardens and parkland, which was once home to 200 fallow deer. Unfortunately, a tuberculosis outbreak in 2021 forced the National Trust to cull the herd. It is hoped that deer will eventually return to the park when it is safe to do so.

Walls, artificial lakes and cascades of water were added to the grounds during the late 18th century. The gardens behind the house were designed by George London (1640-1714), although some features, such as a Dutch water garden, were replaced in the late 18th century by Charles Harcourt Masters. Whilst Masters was a well-known architect during his day, London is famous for working on gardens at Hampton Court Palace, including the hedge maze, Chelsea Hospital, Longleat, and Chatsworth House.

Within the grounds of Dyrham Park is the Anglican parish church of St Peter. It was built during the 13th century, although it had a complete refurbishment in the 17th century to compliment the style of the mansion house. Although the church is small compared to other religious buildings in nearby cities, it contains a north and south aisle, chancel, south-west porch and a bell tower. The encaustic tiles in the south aisle come from the original church, but the font is Norman (11th-12th century), suggesting it was moved to the building from elsewhere.

Similar to many old buildings, Dyrham Park has been featured in several television programmes and films. Notable period dramas include the 1999 BBC mini-series Wives and Daughters, based on the works of Elizabeth Gaskell; Servants (2003), set in the 1850s, The Crimson Field (2014), which took place during the First World War; Jane Austen’s Sanditon (2019), and Poldark (2015-18), as the home of George Warleggan. Aside from period dramas, Dyrham Park was also the setting for one episode of Doctor Who (2010), in which an 8-year-old boy is terrorised by crude-looking dolls. The house was also the setting of The Remains of the Day (1993), starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

Due to ongoing restoration works, Dyrham House is currently only open to the public at weekends, but visitors are welcome to explore the grounds, gardens, tearoom, shops and basement. Entry costs between £12 and £16.50 for adults depending on what day they visit. Children cost between £6 and £8.30, although family tickets are available. Please note, ticket prices are due to increase from 1st March. National Trust members can visit for free.


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What to Read Next

Thin
Author: Ann K. Morris
Published: 10th March 2022
Goodreads Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Reviewed: January 2023

Thin by Ann K. Morris is a fictional story that tackles the topic of anorexia. Told from the point of view of someone in the grips of the illness, it emphasises the workings of the unwell mind and the impact anorexia has on lives, both the sufferer and those around them. Seventeen-year-old Erin did not realise she had an eating disorder until her concerned GP spoke to Erin’s mother, who insists Erin see a psychiatrist. Knowing this would mean gaining weight, Erin runs away to Chicago.

In Chicago, Erin meets a couple of homeless teenagers who show her there is more to the world than being thin. Lin and Ari jump at the chance to eat a plate of food, not knowing when their next meal will be. While Erin believes she needs to lose weight to fit in with her friends at school, Lin and Ari keep away from most people, not knowing how to get out of their situation. The chance meeting between Erin, Lin and Ari allows the characters to choose a new way of life, but only if Erin agrees to accept help for her eating disorder.

Eating disorders can be self-absorbing, which the author demonstrates in Thin when Erin runs away without worrying about what her parents would think. Only through meeting her new friends does Erin begin to understand that her mum has difficulties too, especially married to a man who cares more about sports than his own family.

It is impossible to write a book about eating disorders without any potentially triggering material. Whilst it is not the author’s intention to write anything harmful, people with a severe eating disorder should not read Thin until they are on their way to recovery.

Thin is written almost like a poem with short sentences split over several lines. With only three to five words per line, it is as though the narrative is trying to make itself as thin as possible, just as Erin is doing in the story.

Ann K. Morris should be commended for writing an accurate novel about anorexia. Although it may be too difficult for some eating disorder sufferers to read, Thin will hopefully help others understand the illness and break the stereotypical beliefs many hold about anorexia and other mental illnesses.

Darkness
Author: Victoria Sadler
Published: 1st September 2016
Goodreads Rating: 3.67 out of 5
Reviewed: November 2016

“Violence always gets results.” But at what cost? Victoria Sadler’s dystopian novel Darkness explores an all too realistic scenario set in a not-so-distant future. The western world has fallen due to war and economic collapse. London has become a ghost city due to the death of thousands of people. Those not killed by bombs or deadly viruses succumb to suicide or death by natural causes – if the cold and starvation can be labelled natural.

Laura Lewis is the sole survivor in her block of flats and now needs to make her way through the dangerous streets to St Paul’s Cathedral, where what remains of the State will provide her with safety. Before she reaches her final destination, she is ambushed by an army of women, a threat to the nation, known as RAZR – Resistance Against State Reformation. Jane, the leader of the resistance, believes she has saved Laura from a fate worse than death. But, as Laura discovers, RAZR may result in an even crueller future.

RAZR was born from a hatred of men, a guerilla feminist movement seizing the opportunity to obliterate the patriarchal society. Since the beginning of time, men have oppressed women, regarding them as possessions with which they can do as they please. Despite the apparent equality achieved through past protests, the government (i.e. men) still controls the lives of women. RAZR focus on women’s rights to their own body and are angry at the State’s current use for women: to procreate.

Darkness is full of radical violence, often ending in the mass death of male soldiers. With barely a break to take a breath, the narrative goes from one action scene to the next, heightening the excitement as the novel reaches its climax. As the reader learns more about RAZR and the State, opinions are constantly changed. Who is good, and who is bad? Who can Laura trust? Then, to confuse things even more, Laura is not who she initially appears to be either.

The amount of violence in this novel is disturbing, particularly as the majority of deaths are caused without a guilty conscience. Darkness highlights the horrors of war and the wild nature of humanity. Without men and women living in harmony, there is no peace; on the other hand, complete equality is impossible. Furthermore, is RAZR feminist or terrorist? It is obvious that the human race cannot survive with merely one gender, so is RAZR doing more harm than good by fatally punishing all men?

Overall, Darkness poses more questions than it answers, yet it is a gripping novel. Women, particularly feminists, will enjoy the powerful messages expressed by RAZR, but equally, readers will understand Laura’s hesitation. With so many plot twists to get your head around, you will never get bored of this story. With such an ambiguous ending, it is unclear whether Darkness will remain a standalone novel or be continued with a sequel. Whatever the case, it will be interesting to read what the feminist, Victoria Sadler, comes up with next.

Kids of Appetite
Author: David Arnold
Published: 20th September 2016
Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5
Reviewed: September 2016

They lived and they laughed and they saw that it was good.

Mosquitoland was the best book I read in 2015 and I was excited to discover what David Arnold would write next. I approached Kids of Appetite with mild trepidation; what if it did not live up to my expectations? I need not have worried – it was brilliant. Dubbed a “tragicomedy”, Kids of Appetite is a combination of realistic, heartbreaking experiences with intellectual humour.

The book opens mid-interview at a local police station where two teenagers, Vic and Mad, are being questioned about a murder their friend has supposedly committed. From there, the story backtracks a week and proceeds to bring the reader up to date. It all begins with Vic running away from home, distancing himself from his mother and her new partner. By chance, a coincidence – a bump, Vic would say – he is found by Mad, who introduces him to a small group of homeless friends. Vic may not have packed in preparation for life on the streets – or a greenhouse, as it turns out – however, he did grab the urn containing his late father’s ashes before racing out of the house. Along with the urn is a letter containing cryptic clues that lead to various locations where Vic’s father wished for his ashes to be scattered. Vic and his newfound friends make it a mission to put his father to rest.

It is not possible to label the general theme of the book. Kids of Appetite is a story full of stories. Each character has their own past, something that led them to the situation they find themselves in now. The group consists of five members – once Vic has been accepted. Baz, at age twenty-seven, is the leader: responsible, caring, and fatherly – until accused of murder. Seven years younger is Zuz, Baz’s mute brother, and finally, Coco, an eleven-year-old with the mouth of a foul old lady. It is Coco, amongst all her swearing and hilarious misuse of words, that coins the name Kids of Appetite, KOA for short, a play on words: they are not solely in want of food, they hunger for life.

Initially, it would appear that the main focus will be on Vic: his father’s death, his mother’s new partner, Moebius (facial paralysis) – a syndrome that results in a lot of bullying and discrimination – and, of course, his flight from home. Yet the remaining members of KOA equally contribute to the overall narrative. Mad, like Vic, knows what it is like to lose a father. Unfortunately, she also knows what it is like to lose a mother. Her life since the fateful car crash that left her an orphan has been full of abuse and uncertainty. Baz and Zuz, on the other hand, have escaped a traumatizing childhood amid the Congo Civil War.

Similar to Mosquitoland, Arnold’s second book is full of intellectual knowledge and humour, complete with references to highbrow material. Vic is obsessed with operatic songs and deeply interested in abstract art, particularly Matisse. He pulls the artist’s work apart in search of meaning and relatable truths. Like Vic, Mad has a particular song from which she draws comfort. The lyrics help her make sense of the world around her and help her to produce her manifesto – Madifesto. She is particularly fascinated by S E Hinton’s The Outsiders. With in-depth theories purloined from her favourite novel, she encourages and advises those around her.

It is essentially the characters that make Kids of Appetite such a fantastic work of fiction. Their background stories are all based on the real-life experiences of many people throughout the world; but it is their opinion of life, their terminology, and their reckless enthusiasm that impacts the reader. Kids of Appetite is a book to be read over and over again. So many phrases can be quoted to explain our own lives and feelings. The entire novel is one big quote to sum up life itself. Although there are many themes, stories and ideas, there is one clear message: Let go. Let go of the past. Let go of the things that hold you back. For Vic and Mad, it is the death of their parents; for Coco, it is abandonment; and for Baz and Zuz, to learn to let go of their violent childhood.

David Arnold is an extremely talented author, seamlessly flowing from one notion to another whilst sweeping the reader into a sea of pure emotion. He may overuse the word “ergo” and have an unconventional penchant for ellipses, but that only adds to the uniqueness of the writing. There may be an excessive amount of expletives but that is overshadowed by the pure genius of the story itself. Kids of Appetite is a book I want to recommend to all. The blurb likens it to authors Rainbow Rowell and Jennifer Niven – I would like to throw John Green into the mix – and should appeal to many Young Adult readers. I could write forever about this book, but I would rather you go and read it yourself. And whilst you read, remember:

They lived and they laughed and they saw that it was good.

Runaway Girl
Author: Casey Watson
Published: 20th October 2016
Goodreads Rating: 4.25 out of 5
Reviewed: November 2016

Casey Watson is a specialist foster carer who temporarily houses vulnerable children in emergency situations. Since working in this field for decades, she has documented her experiences in a series of books, each focusing on a different child. Her thirteenth and most recent book is Runaway Girl, aptly named about a (supposedly) fourteen-year-old girl running away from several distressing situations.

Adrianna arrives on Casey’s doorstep with no possessions, no English and no passport. Apart from knowing she is Polish, Adrianna is a complete mystery to the Watson family and the services involved. With her sixth sense tingling, Casey is certain there is something important that Adrianna is hiding, but despite all her attempts, it is not until an emergency hospitalization that the frightened Polish girl starts telling the truth.

With a background of abuse, homelessness and sex trafficking, Adrianna’s story will open readers’ eyes to the shocking situations in which many foreign children find themselves. Unfortunately, Adrianna is only one out of 5,000 girls in the last decade and a half to be brought to England illegally and forced into prostitution.

Fortunately, Adrianna is lucky to have escaped and found a safe place to stay in the Watson household. Without Casey’s care and determination to provide a future for her, Adrianna would have remained one of the “hidden children” that arrive in England every year.

Casey writes in a novel-like format, describing Adrianna’s circumstances from a carer’s point of view. Slowly revealing the secrets of Adrianna’s past, Casey keeps the reader interested in the same way a fiction author would with a clever plot line. Emphasising Adrianna’s difficulties – coming to terms with the abuse she has faced but also worrying about whether the authorities will allow her to remain in England – Casey appeals to the readers’ emotions, making it clear that, although Adrianna is here illegally, trafficked children have every right to be protected and looked after by British authorities.

Although Casey writes under a pseudonym and alters all names within the book, it is unclear how much of the storyline is true or whether the situation has been accentuated to capture the reader’s attention. Yet, this is not important – people will read this for entertainment, so the accuracy of the content is not as significant as how it is told. Runaway Girl, whilst shocking, is engaging and easy to read, with a satisfying ending.

The Last Dragon Slayer
Author: Jasper Fforde
Published: 1st December 2010
Goodreads Rating: 3.87 out of 5
Reviewed: January 2017

The recent (2016) dramatisation on Sky1 has prompted the release of a new edition of Jasper Fforde’s The Last Dragonslayer, which appeared in bookstores six years ago. Fforde is perhaps best known for his Thursday Next series, a comical science-fiction story, but he proves he can equally tackle fantasy with this tale about an intrepid, young dragonslayer.

In the slightly fictional Kingdom of Hereford, part of the Ununited Kingdom, is a home and employment agency for mystical artisans. Over the past decades, magic has begun to diminish, leaving soothsayers and sorcerers struggling to find jobs. Jennifer Strange, although only fifteen, is temporarily in charge of running the agency, Kazam, and looking after the building’s cantankerous inhabitants. Although competent in her position, Jennifer soon finds herself out of her depth when wizards begin having prescient visions of the death of the last living dragon.

Able to ignore the prophecy at first, Jennifer becomes deeply involved once it is revealed that she is the foretold dragonslayer. Being both helped and hindered by friends and obdurate sorcerers, Jennifer desperately tries to prevent the shocking prediction from coming true. Yet, as she quickly discovers, it is impossible to outrun your fate, especially if Big Magic is involved.

The Last Dragonslayer is a fun book to read that, despite the slow build-up to the promised dragon story, is humorous and engaging. Jasper Fforde is a witty writer who uses genuine, intelligent, and often subtle puns rather than demeaning himself by resorting to crude jokes. Although some may dismiss dragons, magic and fantasy as fatuous nonsense, Fforde is writing for the more intellectual reader. Magic is a concept that has been written about thousands of times and also mocked in parodies of well-known literature. The Last Dragonslayer successfully combines fantasy and humour in a way that avoids ridicule.

Some may argue that The Last Dragonslayer is a young adult novel due to the age of the protagonist and the less highfaluting content compared to Fforde’s other works. On the other hand, Jennifer Strange is a character that appears a lot older than she is and is involved in events and satire that a younger audience may not be able to fully appreciate. 

I particularly enjoyed reading Jasper Fforde’s The Last Dragonslayer. I found it engaging and amusing, loved the characters, and was slightly disheartened when the book ended earlier than I expected – that is the downside of having sneak-peek chapters at the rear of the paperback! Of the Jasper Fforde books I have read (The Eyre Affair, 2001 and Shades of Grey, 2009), The Last Dragonslayer has been my favourite. Perhaps the potential younger target audience prevented me from getting lost, unlike the complexity of the other stories. As long as you can forgive the author for his fish fetish and preoccupation with marzipan, you will love this book.


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Discover Eva Gonzalès

Until 15th January 2023, the National Gallery is devoting a small exhibition to the Portrait of Eva Gonzalès by Édouard Manet (1832-83). Unlike other works by Manet, this painting took a long time to complete and lacked his usual spontaneity. It took Manet 40 attempts to paint Gonzalès’ face, and x-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanning reveals the artist reworked the background several times. Whilst the in-depth study of the painting has provided a detailed account of Manet’s process, the sitter is of equal interest. Eva Gonzalès was a French Impressionist painter who started receiving tuition from Manet in 1869 at the age of 20. Successful female painters were not abundant at the time, and there was the misconception that women could only paint things like flowers and lacked the ability to tackle more complicated subjects. Eva Gonzalès proved everyone wrong.

Gonzalès was born in Paris on 19th April 1849, where she grew up in sophisticated literary circles. Her father, Emmanuel Gonzalès (1815-87), served as the president of the Société des gens de lettres de France (Society of People of Letters of France), which many notable writers attended, such as Victor Hugo (1802-85), George Sand (1804-76) and Alexandre Dumas (1802-70). Exposed to new ideas about art and literature at a young age, Gonzalès desired to become an artist, so she started receiving lessons from Charles Chaplin (1825-91), a French landscape and portrait painter.

Most French art schools did not admit women until the end of the 19th century, so many studied at home or in private studios. In 1853, Chaplin opened a women-only studio; and in 1868, the Academie Julian opened its doors to both men and women. For the first time, women were allowed to study from the life model (i.e. nude), despite the opinion that it was inappropriate and morally damaging for ladies. Despite this, women could only exhibit paintings deemed “feminine” at public exhibitions. Nor could they attend discussions with fellow (male) artists to learn about modern art subjects without a chaperone, meaning access to some of the art world remained denied to women.

In 1869, Gonzalès met Manet, who was initially hesitant to discuss his work due to receiving poor reviews at exhibitions. Over time, Manet began to come out of his shell and took Gonzalès on as his only formal pupil. Manet started his portrait of Gonzalès in 1869, eventually finishing it for the Paris Salon in 1870. Unfortunately, it overshadowed all the paintings Gonzalès submitted that year. Instead, critics assumed Gonzalès was a young, decorative model rather than an artist. Manet positioned her at an easel, painting a still-life of flowers, befitting the ideals of a female artist. In reality, Gonzalès had never produced a still life at that time, preferring to paint portraits.

Eventually, the Salon began to take Gonzalès’ work seriously. Whilst Manet developed a brighter, more fluid painting style, Gonzalès stuck to neutral colours and attention to detail. Critics often referred to Gonzalès’ “feminine technique”, but this changed after producing Une loge aux Théâtre Italiens (1874), which they described as full of “masculine vigour”. Unfortunately, this led several people to assume Manet had produced the painting. 

Although Gonzalès is categorised as an Impressionist artist, she never exhibited her work at the Impressionist exhibitions. Whether this was a personal choice or the advice of her tutor, Manet, who did not exhibit with the Impressionist either, is uncertain. Rather than making visible brushstrokes and the focusing on the effects of light in her paintings, Gonzalès concentrated on exploring her identity and moving away from the woman Manet portrayed in Portrait of Eva Gonzalès.

In 1879, Gonzalès married Henri Guérard (1846-97), a French graphic artist who worked for Manet as an engraver. Gonzalès frequently used her husband as a model in her paintings, such as The Donkey Ride (1880), which also features Gonzalès’ sister, Jeanne. Whilst this painting is unfinished, it reveals Gonzalès’s technique of hatching in the landscape with long strokes in the style of many Impressionist artists. By contrast, Jeanne’s face and blue dress are smoothly painted and evenly worked, suggesting the outcome would have looked very different when completed.

Jeanne posed more frequently than Gonzalès’s other models. In 1872, Gonzalès produced her first major work, Indolence, featuring her younger sister looking out of an open window. The French novelist and critic Émile Zola (1840-1902) commented on the nostalgic mood, likening Jeanne to “a virgin fallen from a stained-glass window.” The painting style reflects Gonzalès’ first art teacher’s tuition, but elements of Impressionism are evident in the quick brushstrokes used to form the edges of the curtain and the small bunch of blue flowers on the window sill. The ambivalent expression on Jeanne’s face is also something Gonzalès picked up from Manet.

Gonzalès painted Jeanne almost every day in a variety of guises. Shortly after Gonzalès’ marriage, she dressed her sister in her wedding gown and produced a pastel drawing for the 1880 Salon. The dynamic hatching, likely influenced by Manet, was praised by critics despite the previous thinking that the medium was unsuitable for the “delicate touch” of female artists.

Entitled The Bride, the pastel drawing was strangely prophetic. At the end of April 1883, Gonzalès gave birth to a son, Jean Raimond. A day or so after the birth, Gonzalès learnt Manet had passed away on 30th April. On 6th May, Gonzalès followed suit, passing away due to childbirth complications. She was only 34 years old. The pastel drawing of The Bride was discovered amongst Gonzalès’ personal belongings after her death. Her husband kept the painting and later married Gonzalès sister, Jeanne.

Over time, the French government purchased Gonzalès’ paintings for public galleries, although some were sold to private collectors. During her short life, Gonzalès started making a name for herself across France, Belgium and England, where her paintings were featured in the newspaper L’Art. Unfortunately, as a woman, she received less attention than her male contemporaries and her work was gradually forgotten.

Due to the hindrance placed on female artists, Gonzalès’ most common themes were portraits and domestic scenes of women and children. Whilst she produced a few landscapes, she could not wander the streets like male Impressionists, seeking out locations to paint. Some of Gonzalès’ outdoor scenes were likely staged, such as Nanny and Child (1877-78), which she painted in Dieppe, a city on the coast of Normandy that she frequently visited. The nanny takes centre stage, blocking the only exit from the garden so the child cannot escape. The painting received mixed reviews, with some saying the image of the nanny was too flat, almost like a Japanese print. Others praised the artwork for the same reason, particularly Impressionists, who frequently imitated Japanese prints in their work.

Under Manet’s tuition, Gonzalès experimented with many Impressionist techniques as she gradually developed her own style. Awakening Woman depicts her sister, Jeanne, lying in bed in the soft light of the morning. The contours of the model’s nightgown and the bed sheets almost blend into one expanse of white. Gonzalès cropped the image to focus on the upper body of her sister rather than the entire room. Other Impressionists also used this “snapshot” technique to create a sense of capturing a brief moment of someone’s life, as a camera might do.

Gonzalès’ later works show she detached herself from the Realist style of Charles Chaplin. She also began to separate from Manet’s techniques, gradually absorbing the sketchy painting style of other Impressionist artists. Whilst Luncheon on the Grass (1882) remains unfinished, the manner of painting is very different from her unfinished The Donkey Ride from two years previously. Rather than hatching in the background, Gonzalès wielded her paintbrush more like a pastel crayon, filling in areas with blocks or scribbles of colour.

Similar to Awakening Woman, Gonzalès cropped the scene to focus on one attendee of the Luncheon on the Grass. As usual, the model is her sister Jeanne, who holds a red fan, suggesting it is a hot day. With her elbow resting on a wooden chair, it is unknown whether Jeanne is alone, deep in thought, or if others are out of shot. If the latter, the cropping of the picture makes Jeanne appear isolated, as though she feels out of place in the company of others.

Since her death, Gonzalès’ work has been featured at the Salons de La Vie Moderne (1885), the Salon d’Automne (1907), and several galleries in Paris. The Musée National des Beaux-Arts in Monte Carlo also held an exhibition in 1952. Since then, her paintings have been mostly forgotten until now. The National Gallery goes into great depth about Manet’s Portrait of Eva Gonzalès, going as far as to show x-ray images of the painting. Whilst it is the main feature of the exhibition, the portrait allows the gallery to explore some of the works of Eva Gonzalès, including Une loge aux Théâtre ItaliensThe Donkey RideIndolence and The Bride. The exhibition also features a handful of other female artists who proved women were not restricted to “feminine” themes. Artists include Ellen Sharples (1793-1838), Gwen John (1876-1939), Milly Childers (1866-1922) and Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807).

Discover Manet & Eva Gonzalès is open until 15th January 2023 at the National Gallery in London. Admission is free.


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Year in Review

Dear Reader,

Congratulations, you have made it through another year! I think Simeon gave a good report on 2022 last week, so I do not need to say too much. This time last year, I wrote, “my best friend, honorary family member and favourite Martin was diagnosed with Bowel Cancer” and had just undergone an operation. I am pleased to report he received the all-clear, and we have been able to restart our Friday trips to London. My favourite exhibitions this year include the Harry Potter Photographic Exhibition, Small is Beautiful: Miniature Art Exhibition, and Raphael. I also enjoyed visiting places in Bath and Cardiff on a couple of holidays.

Last December, I set up a fundraiser for Bowel Cancer UK and raised a total of £750. Many donations came from friends of Martin, and I reached my £100 target in one day. This December, I set up a fundraiser for a different charity in honour of a very close friend, Stella. The charity is Beat, the UK’s leading charity supporting those affected by eating disorders. Stella and I met in 2014 when we were both hospitalised with anorexia. We were lucky (spoilt, even), although we did not realise it at the time, to receive NHS funding to stay in a private hospital. Since then, NHS funding has been withdrawn due to rising costs and a lack of government support.

Unfortunately, circumstances have forced Stella to return to hospital several times over the last few years, and she has experienced the results of reduced funding. Some hospitals have staff that lack eating disorder-specific training, and one is forced to discharge patients while they are still critically ill due to a lack of beds and understanding. Several deaths from eating disorders may have been prevented with the right support. Beat provides support for eating disorder sufferers by providing helplines, information and resources. They also campaign for increased NHS funding, reduced waiting times and better education for health and medical professionals. As of writing, I have raised £235 for Beat.

In June, I opened an Instagram account to showcase the photographs I took of Simeon on our various adventures. Simeon belongs to my friend Helen (Martin’s wife), and Martin suggested we take Simeon on holiday to Amsterdam in 2018. Since then, Simeon has visited many cities, completed many Treasure Trails, and posed for many photographs. I thought Instagram would be an easier way of sharing these pictures with my friends and family, but before I knew it, hundreds of accounts started following Simeon’s adventures. The majority of followers are also stuffed animals (or “plushies”), and I soon discovered a whole community of toys and teddy bears that go on adventures around the world.

In August, a sloth called Sammy (belonging to Martin and Helen) joined Simeon on his adventurers. In October, Ollie the Otter (purchased by Martin) arrived as the baby of the family. All three get up to a lot of mischief and like to visit other “plushies”, such as some of my cuddly toys: Hedgie the hedgehog, Vegas the monkey, Silly Billy the sloth (named by Simeon’s followers), Aurora the unicorn (also named by Simeon’s followers), and Dora Duck. To anyone who does not follow Simeon on Instagram, this probably sounds a bit crazy!

Simeon receives messages and comments from his followers almost daily. On Simeon’s birthday (17th November, if you are interested), one follower wrote, “Happy birthday to the sweetest plushie I have ever seen. You are one of a kind. We don’t know each other personally, but you have changed my life through your adventures!” Others have said similar things, often commenting on Simeon, Sammy and Ollie’s ability to be kind, thoughtful, sweet, cute and inspiring.

This year, I discovered the art of iris folding, which involves folding and sticking strips of paper to construct an image. I have made many greeting cards using this method, but for my Christmas card, I needed something I could photocopy and print several times. Inspired by iris folding, I drew a camel out of triangular shapes, thus moving away from my “safe” method of drawing – something my old college tutors tried to encourage me to attempt.

Goals for 2022
Continue blogging
Write more book reviews
Read the 40+ books littering my bedroom floor
Go to exhibitions in London (with Martin when he is well enough)
Go on holidays with friends (ditto)

Goals for 2023
Continue blogging
Write more book reviews
Read the 50+ books littering my bedroom floor
Go to exhibitions in London
Go on holidays with friends
Continue making people smile through Simeon’s Instagram page
Create more drawings

My fundraiser for Beat is about to end. If you would like to donate, you can do so on the Beat Website. There is an option to write why or in honour of who you are donating.

Wishing you all a happy new year! Thank you for continuing to read my blogs.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

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Hello, Simeon Here

Hello readers, it’s Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee coloured, if you please). I have taken over Hazel’s blog this week to wish you a happy Christmas and to tell you about my amazing year. This year, you will have read about my visit to the city of Bath, my trip to Cardiff, and my Treasure Trail around London, but I have so much more to tell you.

On 26th June 2022, I opened an Instagram account to share photos from my holidays with friends. Before I knew it, hundreds of teddies and animals like me were following my updates. As of writing, I have over 1,050 followers from all over the world. I am, quite frankly, an international superstar.

My Instagram adventure began just before the heat wave set in, and it was too hot to go out, so I shared some old photographs from my trips to Amsterdam and Antwerp. My followers began to grow, and I made many new friends, so I thought it was time to upload some up-to-date pictures.

Just as I was setting up my camera for a photoshoot, I discovered I had caught Covid! What a disaster! I broke the news to my fans followers, who showered me with sympathy. Of course, my humans were sick too, so I didn’t get much compassion from them!

Before I could complain about the lack of attention my humans were paying me, a parcel arrived with some intriguing contents. On the 12th August 2022, my life changed forever. I became a big brother! Nestled inside the box was an adorable little sloth called Sammy.

Sammy and I instantly became best friends, and he features in many of my Instagram posts. He is loved by my followers, although not as much as me, for his funny idiosyncrasies, for example, he thinks everything is a hat. Toilet rolls, socks, trousers, wrapping paper tubes, sweets and so forth, if Sammy can fit or balance it on his head, he will. Sammy is also very good at finding things, which he proudly presents to me, such as stickers, a sword (it was a pencil), a tin of marrowfat peas, glasses, a model of a tortoise, and a necklace. Sammy’s “treasure” is becoming quite a collection!

My Instagram account is called the Adventures of Simeon, so it is only fair that I continue to have adventures without my little brother tagging along. At the end of August, my Human Friend and I took my Human Dad to London to complete a Treasure Tail. You can read all about it here. I have completed many Treasure Trails over the past few years and hope to tackle many more in the future. The owners of Treasure Trails follow me on Instagram, and I have been featured on their page! That’s how famous I am now!

This year, I completed three Treasure Trails. I did the first one in Bath at Easter time, the London one in August, and a third in September. The third coincided with my holiday to Cardiff, but I had extra help with this one, although I am sure I could have done it alone. My Humans and I were halfway to Wales when I discovered Sammy had snuck into my backpack! How cheeky!

Unfortunately, my trip to Cardiff started a couple of days after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, so many places were closed for mourning, such as Cardiff Castle and the cathedral. Nonetheless, we found plenty to do, including Caerphilly Castle, Castell Coch, St Fagans National History Museum and bus trips around Cardiff. We met some humans who adored us (well, who wouldn’t?) and tried the food at many restaurants. We even had a posh meal at The Ivy!

On our final day in Cardiff, the King came to see us! Well, not just us, everyone. People started queuing outside Cardiff Castle at 3 am, hoping to catch a glimpse of Charles III. Only a select number of people were allowed into the castle grounds, and we did not think we stood a chance, so we went on an hour boat trip instead. When we returned, the queue had disappeared, but we were told there was still room in the castle for a few more people, gibbons and sloths, so without hesitation, in we went.

We had to wait a while, but eventually, we were rewarded with a glimpse of the new King, who waved to the crowd before entering the castle to talk to important people. During the wait, we had our photo taken with the Royal Welsh Guards and a horse. We also saw soldiers marching and playing instruments, and a goat, who was not playing an instrument.

Normality briefly resumed on our return to London until 21st October, when I gained another little brother! Ollie the baby otter was rescued from eBay by my Human Dad after being inspired by The Little Book of Otter Philosophy by Jennifer McCartney. Ollie is very mischievous, although I am not sure he does anything naughty on purpose. He is very good at climbing up things, which is rather strange for an otter, but he has not learnt how to get back down again. If food goes missing, it is because Ollie has taken it, but to get it back, you have to find him first. Ollie is very good at hide and seek!

It is hard work being the older, responsible brother, which made me wonder how old I am. After careful calculations, we worked out I was born on 17th November 2007. Not only did this make me feel very grown up, it meant it was nearly my 15th birthday! This year, I had my very first birthday party. It was a surprise, and many friends came over to play games. I received a badge from one friend that said, “It’s my birthday,” and a set of clothes from another. I was a very lucky gibbon.

Sammy and Ollie frequently appear with me on my Instagram account. Both are much loved by my followers, although not as much as me, obviously. We have had lots of fun taking photos of each other, and we have also filmed the occasional video.

At the end of November, I went to a Christmas Tree Festival where I met the REAL Father Christmas. I told him I had been a very good gibbon and would be grateful if he visited me this year. I also let him know that all my friends and followers were good boys and girls. I hope you all receive something nice this year. Later, I received a letter from Father Christmas confirming that he will visit me! It says:

Dear Simeon,
Things are really busy here at the North Pole, and Christmas is going to be here before we know it! I can’t wait! On Christmas Eve, I’m coming to your house in London first! Be sure you’re in bed and asleep with those big adorable eyes closed. Remember, I can’t deliver presents unless you’re fast asleep.
By the way, all the elves wanted me to tell you they said, “Hello”. They also wanted me to share with you what they had for lunch today. They were so excited when I told them you liked bananas too!
Mrs. Claus and I were talking about you last night at dinner and how proud we are of you for looking after your baby brother, Ollie. You should be proud of yourself! I know it can be hard sometimes, but remember to always use your manners and treat people the way you would want them to treat you! I have to remind the elves of that, too.
Did you know that I have a list of all the boys and girls in the world? Well, it looks like you’ve been a very good boy! So you’re on the nice list again! Mrs. Claus and I just can’t get over the fact that you’re 15 years old already. I can hardly wait to see you and your brother, Sammy.
I’m sorry to say, but I must be going now. One of the elves just came into my office and needs a helping hand in the workshop.
Merry Christmas to you and your family!
Take care,
Santa

The year went from being the hottest on record to freezing cold in a matter of days. Fortunately, Sammy, Ollie and I have lots of fur to keep us warm. In mid-December, we woke up to discover the world had turned white with snow. It was very exciting! We were allowed to go outside and play, but we only lasted 8 minutes before we felt cold and damp. We decided it was safer to watch the snow through the window!

Now it is nearly Christmas day, and we are looking forward to spending it with Hazel and her family. We also hope there may be something for us under the Christmas tree too! If Hazel lets me, I will write again next year and perhaps go on a few more Treasure Trails. Until then, you are welcome to follow my adventures on Instagram at @theadventuresofsimeon. If you do not have Instagram, you can see my most recent photographs here.

Christmas wishes,
From Simeon

PS. Below are a couple of my videos, enjoy!


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Read all Simeon’s adventures
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp
Simeon Investigates Covent Garden
Simeon and the Green Witch’s Treasure
Simeon Conquers York
Simeon’s Bristol Highlights
Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part One
Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part Two
Simeon goes to Grantham
Simeon and the Cable Car Mission
Simeon and the Quest for the Roman Hoard
Simeon and a Tale of Two Bridges
Simeon and the Cardiff City Mystery

Fly In League With The Night

Cut short in 2020 due to lockdown, Tate Britain’s exhibition Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly In League With The Night has returned to the gallery for a final three months after touring internationally. Open to the public until 26th February 2023, the exhibition showcases Yiadom-Boakye‘s cryptic portraits of fictitious people with poetic titles, which leave the viewer desperately trying to understand her intentions. Without explanatory labels, visitors are invited to interpret the paintings in relation to themselves and their circumstances. Yiadom-Boakye is both an artist and a writer who writes “about the things I can’t paint and paint the things I can’t write about.” The exhibition is the first to celebrate Yiadom-Boakye’s work in depth, spanning from her graduation from the Royal Academy Schools in 2003 until her recent work of 2020.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye was born in 1977 in London to Ghanaian parents who moved to the UK to work for the NHS. She studied art at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design but disliked the teaching, so she transferred to Falmouth College of Art in Cornwall, where she graduated in 2000. Following this, she studied for a master’s degree at the Royal Academy Schools, which she achieved in 2003.

Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019), a Nigerian art critic, gave Yiadom-Boakye her big break by exhibiting her work at Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. The museum is devoted to artists of African descent. In 2013, Yiadom-Boakye received a nomination for the Turner Prize, along with Laure Prouvost, who won; Tino Sehgal; and David Shrigley. Yiadom-Boakye received the nomination for her portrait paintings of imaginary subjects at her first solo exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, London.

In 2019, Yiadom-Boakye was featured on Powerlist’s top 100 influential people of African or African Caribbean heritage in the United Kingdom. The following year, she reached number 9 on the list, below the likes of the grime artist Stormzy and Jacky Wright, the vice president of Microsoft US. Although she earned the accolade for her artwork, Yiadom-Boakye describes herself as a writer of short stories and poems, yet she continues to excel at painting. In 2018, she became the first woman of colour awarded the Carnegie Prize for art.

Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings are predominantly figurative, featuring imaginary Black subjects in front of ambiguous backgrounds of monochromatic dark hues. She does not use models but often takes inspiration from scrapbooks and magazines or relies on her imagination. The figures tend to have contemplative facial expressions and relaxed postures, to which many viewers may relate. The more curious may wonder what the people are thinking, but no explanation is forthcoming.

In an interview, Yiadom-Boakye stated, “People ask me, ‘Who are they, where are they?’ What they should be asking is ‘what’ are they?” She deliberately makes her figures hard to place in time and location, giving them a sense of timelessness. The clothing rarely features anything cultural or time-specific, and Yiadom-Boakye prefers to paint her figures without shoes to avoid tying them to a particular era. By avoiding this, Yiadom-Boakye allows people to relate to the paintings regardless of their backgrounds.

Given Yiadom-Boakye’s Ghanaian ancestry, it is no surprise that she only paints Black figures. She had no ulterior motive for this, but when questioned, explained that she wants Black society to “exist unto itself” rather than in relation to White people and racial hardships. “I’ve never felt the need to explain its presence in the work any more than I’ve felt the need to explain my presence in the world.”

Rather than taking inspiration from other visual artists, Yiadom-Boakye turns to music and literature. Tate Britain includes several examples of literature and songs that have influenced Yiadom-Boakye, including Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome by Oscar Wilde. Her favourite music artists include Prince, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, James Brown and John Coltrane.

Listening to jazz music inspires Yiadom-Boakye to improvise, as many musicians do, but to also follow a plan. Rather than painstakingly agonising over elements of a painting that is not going right, Yiadom-Boakye changes track and creates something new. Using her imagination rather than drawing from life allows her to alter things during the painting process. An image of two figures may become one, and an outdoor setting may be moved inside.

Authors and literature do not necessarily inspire Yiadom-Boakye’s visual artwork but influence her choice of titles. During an interview with American curator Antwaun SargentYiadom-Boakye revealed, “There were certain references from literature that stuck with me, and made me think differently about language in relation to imagery. So the titles have never been descriptive; they’re never explanations of the paintings – they’re always another brush mark, a part of the painting, rather than a description of it.” While painting, a certain image, shade of colour, facial expression and so forth often triggers a remembered phrase or book title, which Yiadom-Boakye uses or adapts for the title.

The subtitle for the exhibition at Tate Britain also has no bearing on the artwork. Fly In League With The Night is a phrase from a poem by Yiadom-Boakye. It is quoted on the wall outside the entrance:
At Ease As The Day Breaks Beside Its Erasure 
And At Pains To Temper The Light 
At Liberty Like The Owl When The Need Comes Knocking 
To Fly In League With The Night 

Yiadom-Boakye prefers to focus on fictional people and settings because it gives her more control over the outcome. Art schools teach students to draw from life, but Yiadom-Boakye struggled to capture the essence of the models. Whilst paintings of her friends and family look accurate, they fail to reveal the individuals’ personalities. Using her imagination, Yiadom-Boakye is not under pressure to depict exact likenesses and personas. A relaxed figure may become pensive during the painting process, yet this does not ruin the portrait because there is no “right” way to portray imaginary people.

“Although they are not real I think of them as people known to me. They are imbued with a power of their own; they have a resonance – something emphatic and other-worldly. I admire them for their strength, their moral fibre. If they are pathetic, they don’t survive; if I feel sorry for someone, I get rid of them. I don’t like to paint victims.”

Photographs and magazines often inspire Yiadom-Boakye’s work, but she never paints from only one image. By keeping a scrapbook, Yiadom-Boakye combines elements in her artwork, almost like a collage, to create imaginary scenes. Whilst her figures are recognisably human, she does not paint famous faces or give away a person’s station in life. She wants Black people to exist without labels and without being compared to White people. Racial relations of the past, particularly in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, imply “you’re a goddess or a slave”, whereas most people are neither.

The way the paintings hang at an exhibition is another important factor of Yiadom-Boakye’s work. She worked with Tate Britain to decide where and how to display each image. Yiadom-Boakye paints with the canvas at eye level, so it makes sense to hang them at the same height. In some instances, the figures look directly at the viewer. In others, they peer at the painting next to them or across the room. Although each painting is an individual work of art, placing them next to or in the same room as other examples alters people’s interpretations.

Many of Yiadom-Boakye’s earlier works feature her signature dark colour palette, which evokes a sense of stillness. The plain backgrounds draw attention to the ahistorical fictional characters, who often appear alone on the canvas. In more recent works, Yiadom-Boakye has introduced more than one character into her imaginary scenes and has started to experiment with colour.

Speaking to The Guardian, Yiadom-Boakye said, “In the last few years, I’ve become obsessed with colour, too. My pictures used to be very dark, but now I’m putting in vivid reds and greens.” Yiadom-Boakye stuck to dark colours for so long because she felt confident in her ability to use them in her paintings. Introducing colour was initially a step out of her comfort zone, but now it is something she embraces.

Yiadom-Boakye has not hung her paintings chronologically, so each room has a mix of old and new artworks. Rather than separating the dark from the colourful styles, she encourages them to speak to each other through careful placing in the gallery. Instead of learning about the artist, visitors attend the exhibition to appreciate the paintings and Yiadom-Boakye’s artistic skills.

Although Yiadom-Boakye is a relatively new artist, she has inspired some artistic circles. In 2020, the Yale Center for British Art celebrated Women’s History Month, which featured a portrait of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye by the American artist Kehinde Wiley. Originally painted in 2017, the gallery installed it in place of a Thomas Gainsborough portrait of Lord Pulteney (1729-1805), who made his fortune in the Caribbean using slave labour. Wiley’s painting depicts Yiadom-Boakye in the guise of a rich, landowning, eighteenth-century white man. The artist aimed to subvert the norms of Western portraiture by placing Black figures in historical spaces.

Wiley’s painting differs from the way Yiadom-Boakye depicts Black figures. Rather than producing ahistorical portraits, he has deliberately placed Yiadom-Boakye in a time and place where it would have been impossible for a Black person to be a rich landowner. Wiley is drawing attention to the inequalities of the past and making people aware that the people depicted by famous artists of the past achieved their status by means that would be unacceptable in the 21st century.

Yiadom-Boakye, on the other hand, does not paint to make people question the past or draw attention to inequalities. She does not want to focus on how Black people were deemed different from White people. Instead, Yiadom-Boakye moves the attention away from racism and paints how she sees Black people: ordinary individuals.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly In League With The Night is open until 26th February 2023 at Tate Britain. Tickets cost £16. Concessions are available.


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If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Making Modernism: Paula Modersohn-Becker

Until 12th February 2023, the Royal Academy of Arts is exhibiting the work of seven female artists who achieved success between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. These women (Paula Modersohn-Becker, Käthe Kollwitz, Gabriele Münter, Marianne Werefkin, Ottilie Reylaender, Erma Bossi and Jacoba van Heemskerck) worked during a time the role of women in society was under fierce public debate. Women’s suffrage movements were prevalent in many countries, but other communities, particularly in Germany, believed women should dedicate themselves to the three Ks: Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church).

The exhibition, Making Modernism, reveals women were excluded from art colleges, resulting in the establishment of “Ladies’ Academies” by the Association of Women Artists. Rural artists’ colonies also supported female artists, introducing them to Post-Impressionism and Expressionism. The seven artists included in the RA’s exhibition never joined a particular art movement, allowing them the freedom to develop their own style and create or break the rules, which many of their male counterparts could not do without upsetting or causing a stir among critics. 

Set up by theme rather than artist, the exhibition explores the types of work the seven female artists produced: portraits, children, landscapes, still-life etc. Whilst this is useful in some respects, it is harder to appreciate each artist individually. So, this blog post is the first in a series that looks at each woman’s life and successes, giving them the full attention they deserve.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907)

“The intensity with which a subject is grasped – still lives, portraits, or pictures from one’s imagination – is the beauty of art.”

Recognised as the first known female painter to paint nude self-portraits and the first woman to have a museum devoted exclusively to her art (the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum), Paula Modersohn-Becker was a German Expressionist painter. During her relatively short life, she produced 700 paintings and over 1000 drawings.

Born Minna Hermine Paula Becker on 8th February 1876 in Dresden-Friedrichstadt, Modersohn-Becker was the third child of the university professor Carl Woldemar Becker (1841–1901) and Mathilde (1852–1926) of the aristocratic von Bültzingslöwen family. Her parents raised Paula and her six siblings in a cultured and intellectual environment, evidently having high hopes for their future. Unfortunately, the children’s prospects were limited after their uncle, Oskar Becker (1839-68), shot King Wilhelm of Prussia in the neck in a failed assassination attempt in 1861.

In 1888, the Becker family moved to Bremen, where they interacted with local artistic circles. Encouraged by this, Modersohn-Becker started learning to draw, saying, “At first, I shall only be drawing, beginning with very simple arabesques and other designs. If I progress, then I shall make charcoal sketches after Greek plaster casts … If I advanced further, I shall begin drawing and painting from live models.” After attending private art lessons in Bremen, Modersohn-Becker’s parents sent her to relatives in England in 1892 to help her learn English. While there, Modersohn-Becker attended St John’s Wood Art School in London.

Returning to Bremen in 1893, Modersohn-Becker and two sisters attended a teacher’s seminary per their father’s wishes. During her spare time, Modersohn-Becker received painting lessons from Bernhard Wiegandt, a local artist, and set up an art studio at her parents’ house. Although Modersohn-Becker passed her teaching course, it was evident that she had no intention of continuing down that career path. Instead, she travelled to Berlin in 1896 to participate in a six-week art course run by the Verein der Berliner Künstlerinnen.

After completing the art course, Modersohn-Becker chose to remain in Berlin, where she enrolled in the first-ever painting class held at the Women’s Academy. She eventually returned to Bremen in 1898 but convinced her parents to allow her to attend another art course, this time at the artists’ colony in Worpswede. The colony consisted of artists who rejected traditional styles of art taught at academies. Under Fritz Mackensen’s (1866-1953) tutelage, Modersohn-Becker produced landscapes, focusing on colours, tones and textures. Unfortunately, Modersohn-Becker often received criticism from her tutor, who complained she let herself “into the foreground too much” rather than copying directly from nature.

Modersohn-Becker exhibited two paintings with the Worpswede group in the Bremen Kunsthalle in 1899, but they were removed after the hysterical critic, Arthur Fitger, protested the inclusion of female artists. At the time, Modersohn-Becker believed Fitger hated her paintings, which did not completely conform with the colony’s romanticized traditions of landscape painting. After this incident, Modersohn-Becker chose to move to Paris, where attitudes towards art were less restricted than in Bremen.

Modersohn-Becker arrived in Paris in 1900 and began studying at the Académie Colarossi. She frequently visited museums, where she felt inspired by the colourful paintings of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and members of Les Nabis, such as Pierre Bonnard and Félix Vallotton, who bridged the gap between Impressionism and Modernism. She noted these artists used simplistic or symbolic forms rather than true-to-life figures and natural colours. “Strive for the greatest simplicity by means of the most intimate observation.”

During Modersohn-Becker’s first year in Paris, the 1900 Paris Exposition celebrated the achievements of the past century by exhibiting the achievements and cultures of fifty-six countries. People travelled far and wide to attend the world fair, including artists from the Worpswede group. Modersohn-Becker knew one man, Otto Modersohn (1865-1943), from his occasional visits to the colony. Although he was married, the pair became close friends and met in Paris. Unfortunately, Modersohn’s trip to the city was cut short after receiving news that his wife, Helene, had passed away.

Despite her parent’s opposition, Modersohn-Becker followed Modersohn back to Worpswede, where they married in May 1901 after a short courtship. Modersohn-Becker wished to continue working as an artist but had to combine this with her responsibilities as a wife and a stepmother to Modersohn’s young daughter, Elsbeth. During the first couple of years of marriage, Modersohn-Becker managed to set up a studio on a nearby farm, where she completed several paintings of children. Some of these artworks, such as Girl in the Garden Next to a Glass Sphere (1901-2), may be portraits of her stepdaughter.

In 1903, Modersohn-Becker and her husband visited Paris for a couple of months. Modersohn-Becker used this time to visit art galleries and other artists, such as Auguste Rodin, Bonnard and Vallotton, who were starting to embrace Japanese styles. Modersohn-Becker returned to Paris alone in 1905, acknowledging that her husband did not find modern art appealing. She began taking drawing lessons at the Julian Academy but soon realised her style clashed with what the school taught.

After returning to Worpswede, Modersohn-Becker began to focus on still life, producing almost 50 scenes in two years. Some of her earlier paintings in this genre differ from her usual style. It is as though she attempted to copy the methods taught at the schools in Paris. Modersohn-Becker quickly rejected the realistic appearance in preference of bold colours and simplistic shapes. She also continued to paint portraits in this manner.

For most of 1906, Modersohn-Becker and her husband lived apart. Modersohn-Becker rented a studio on Avenue du Maine, Paris, near her friend Clara Westhoff, who was married to the writer Rainer Maria Rilke. Modersohn-Becker and Westhoff met at the colony in Worpswede and remained close friends. Modersohn-Becker was also good friends with Rilke, often writing to him from Worpswede. In February 1906, she wrote to Rilke about the difficulties she faced as a married artist. “And now, I don’t even know how I should sign my name, I’m not Modersohn and I’m not Paula Becker anymore either.”

Letters from Modersohn-Becker to her husband suggested she considered ending their marriage, asking him to “try to get used to the possibility of the thought that our lives can go separate ways”. During her separation from her husband, Modersohn-Becker accomplished some of her most distinctive works, including nude self-portraits, which were an atypical and shocking theme for a female artist. Critics label Modersohn-Becker’s nudes as unconventional because they express ambivalence toward the subject.

While in France, Modersohn-Becker declared in a letter to her sister, “I am becoming somebody – I’m living the most intensively happy period of my life.” Yet, she chose to return to her husband despite her yearning for independence. Modersohn-Becker’s journals and correspondence reveal she never stopped loving Modersohn but feared settling down and becoming a mother. She wanted to have a successful career by the age of 30 before thinking about having children.

Modersohn-Becker returned to Worpswede at the beginning of 1907. Now age 30, she felt able to settle down and start a family. During her pregnancy, Modersohn-Becker painted another nude self-portrait, making her the first known woman to paint herself nude, the first woman to paint herself pregnant, and the first woman to paint herself nude and pregnant. As far as art historians know, Modersohn-Becker never exhibited these paintings during her lifetime, perhaps out of fear of causing a scandal.

On 2nd November 1907, Modersohn-Becker gave birth to a girl, Mathilde (Tillie). Although overjoyed with her daughter, Modersohn-Becker felt unwell after the delivery, complaining of pains in her legs. The doctor prescribed a period of bed rest, as was the norm at that time. The doctor returned on 20th November to suggest she try to rise from her bed. Modersohn-Becker only managed to take a few steps before sitting down due to excruciating pain in her legs. She died shortly after asking for her daughter.

Today, physicians suspect Modersohn-Becker suffered from deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is common in women told to rest for a long time after giving birth. At the time, doctors did not understand the risk of blood clots due to long periods of inactivity. When Modersohn-Becker rose from her bed for the first time, she loosened a clot in her leg, which caused her death when it obstructed a vital organ.

After Modersohn-Becker’s funeral at the Worpswede Cemetery, Rilke wrote the poem Requiem for a Friend in her memory. “Oh you were far beyond all fame; were almost invisible; had withdrawn your beauty, softly, as one would lower a brightly coloured flag on the grey morning after a holiday. You had just one desire: a year’s long work — which was never finished; was somehow never finished.” Friends and artists held exhibitions of Modersohn-Becker’s work, which brought her the fame she never achieved while alive. Collectors started to buy her paintings, and ten years after her death held a large exhibition at the Kestnergesellschaft in Hanover and published a collection of her letters and journals.

In 1927, art patron Ludwig Roselius (1874-1943) opened the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum in Bremen, the first museum devoted to a female artist. It is situated in a purpose-built Brick Expressionist building, which became a listed building in 1973. The museum contains paintings from all periods of Modersohn-Becker’s life. In 1935, local Nazi members attacked some of the artwork and museum, and the following year, Adolf Hitler denounced Modersohn-Becker’s paintings as degenerate, stating they were “A revolting mixture of colours, of idiotic figures, of sick children, degenerates, the dregs of humanity.”

Seventy of Modersohn-Becker’s paintings were removed from museums and/or destroyed by the Nazi party. Fortunately, Modersohn-Becker was a prolific artist, so only a 10th of her artwork disappeared during this period. At least 50 paintings belonged to her daughter, Mathilde Modersohn, who donated them to the Paula Modersohn-Becker-Stiftung (Paula Modersohn-Becker Foundation), founded in 1978.

In 2007, Modersohn-Becker’s parent’s house in Bremen opened as a private museum and art gallery. The project, run by Heinz and Betty Thies, began in 2003 when they purchased and restored the run-down house. The museum opened in time to honour the 100th anniversary of Modersohn-Becker’s death.

Visitors to the Royal Academy exhibition may not have heard of Paula Modersohn-Becker, but she has inspired several artists and is remembered in her home country. One biographer suggests Modersohn-Becker’s artwork inspired a couple of paintings by Pablo Picasso. Whether or not this is true, she certainly held enough influence to become one of the women on the Deutsche Bundespost‘s series of Women in German History postage stamps. Her life is also immortalised in the 2016 German bio-pic film, Paula, and fictionalised in Sue Hubbard’s 2012 novel, Girl in White.

Francesca Wade, writing for the Royal Academy magazine, describes Modersohn-Becker as “harnessing her emotional turmoil to create forceful self-portraits and a series of remarkable paintings of women – pregnant, breastfeeding, ageing.” Nowadays, having seen the likes of Lucian Freud and Paula Rego, Modersohn-Becker’s paintings are not as shocking as they were at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, the uniqueness of Modersohn-Becker’s work gets lost in a sea of Modern, Post-Modern and contemporary art, but in her lifetime, she was something new and daring. Modersohn-Becker paved the way for female artists to paint what and how they liked, whether naked self-portraits, pregnancy, breastfeeding women, landscapes or portraits. Regardless of personal aesthetic preferences, Paula Modersohn-Becker is an artist that needs to be included in galleries and exhibitions because she is a turning point in the history of art in a misogynistic world.

Paula Modersohn-Becker is one of seven artists featured in Making Modenism at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The exhibition is open until 12th February 2023 and tickets cost up to £19. Concessions are available, including free entry for Friends of the RA.

To be continued…


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What Should You Read Next?

Coggling
Author: Jordan Elizabeth
Published: 25th January 2016
Goodreads Rating: 4.08 out of 5
Reviewed: February 2016

Fifteen-year-old Edna spends her life looking after her brother Harrison whilst also working as a servant for a rich family. One day she is worried about Harrison’s uncharacteristic behaviour and is concerned to find him wearing a pocket watch that does not belong to him. Yet, when she snatches the watch away from him, he disintegrates into a pile of cogs. Panicked, Edna rushes out onto the streets in search of help, but naturally, no one believes her; no one but a thief, that is. Ike claims to recognize the watch as belonging to the hags – an evil, magical species – and says they must have stolen Harrison and replaced him with a cogling – an automaton changeling.

With Ike’s help, Edna is determined to rescue her brother, yet there are many incidents ahead for the pair to try and deter them. Not only that, Ike appears to have an ulterior motive for aiding her. Edna is also harbouring a deep secret.

Cogling is not based on a fairytale, yet it would not look out of place amongst the Grimm selection. It is full of adventure and magic, yet is darker than the stories told to children. When reading, I could not help but be reminded of Cornelia Funke’s Reckless on account of the similarities of strange creatures and settings – although that is where the comparisons end.

What I liked about Cogling is that it is a very modern fairytale in terms of its characters. Although set in a past where women were a lower caste than men, the heroine is not a helpless maid as in traditional tales. Edna and Ike are of equal ability and defeat the hags together, rather than Ike being the dashing prince rescuing the princess.

To begin with, Cogling felt like it was going to be fun to read but nothing special. The characters were a little annoying, but that added a slight humour. Then it got more interesting. As their lives became more dangerous, the story got much more exciting and hard to put down. The character developments were brilliant.

If you like fairytales, you will also love Cogling. Its steampunk approach makes it unique and fascinating. 

In A Land of Paper Gods
Author: Rebecca Mackenzie
Published: 28th January 2016
Goodreads Rating: 3.47 out of 5
Reviewed: March 2016

“My name is Henrietta S. Robertson. That’s my English name… My Chinese name is Ming-Mei.”

As the child of two members of the Interior Alliance Mission, Henrietta has grown up between two cultures: English and Chinese. From the age of six, she was sent to boarding school on a mountain in the Jiangxi Province, where four years later, she remains a small, pale, lonely girl.

For a girl as young as ten, Etta has a big imagination. She decides that God has called her to be a prophetess and encourages the other girls in Dormitory A to join her in a Prophetess Club. This results in Etta getting into all sorts of trouble as she naively goes about inventing prophecies; all the while, the Second Sino-Japanese War gets closer and closer to their mountain sanctuary.

Told mostly from Etta’s point of view, In a Land of Paper Gods is a hilarious historical novel about a young girl’s innocence. A large part of the story is about the missionary school rather than the ongoing war, so the focus is on Etta’s interpretation of the Bible and her understanding of the differences between Western Christian and Chinese cultures. Yet, once America joins the war effort, it is shockingly quick how the tale can go from humorous to heartbreaking.

The other character who plays a large part in this novel is Muriel, a dorm aunty who Etta regards highly. Muriel wanted to be a missionary but found herself working at the Lushan school instead, keeping an eye on the ten and eleven-year-old girls. Although most of the book is written in Etta’s first-person narrative, Rebecca Mackenzie has also included the occasional diary entry from Aunty Muriel. Since these are so few, it is not clear what their purpose is, as the story could easily continue without them.

Despite being a historical novel, In a Land of Paper Gods focuses less on fact and more on the impact the times had on a young girl. It is interesting to see the character development of Etta as she goes from a naughty, attention-seeking schoolgirl to a young woman who must fend for herself. All the while, she has her belief in God to resort to for explanations about the world in which she is living. The reader also witnesses the growth of the relationship between Aunty Muriel and Etta. To begin with, it is that of an adult and child, but it ends with them being equals in their suffering.

For some people, the Christian content will not mean anything, but it is possible to enjoy the novel without a religious background. For those like myself, who have a Christian upbringing, this aspect makes the story even better. Readers may recognize themselves or their childhood in Etta, particularly her understanding of the Bible.

Gratitude
Author: Dani DiPirro
Published: 13th September 2016
Goodreads Rating: 4.06 out of 5
Reviewed: June 2016

“Effortless inspiration for a happier life.” It has been scientifically proven that gratitude can benefit mental and physical well-being. It is also acknowledged that being thankful is difficult for many people due to negative circumstances or pessimistic personalities. Gratitude is a little, hardback book by writer and graphic designer Dani DiPirro, whose purpose is to encourage the reader to show and feel more gratitude in their lives. In a way, this is a self-help book.

Using quotes, written insights and activities, DiPirro guides the reader through several situations in which one can be grateful. The author’s insights are sensitive but to the point, suggesting that everyone faces these problems and does not isolate individuals. The quotes help emphasise the ideas, and the activities are simple and relevant.

The activities are nothing to be afraid of; they are not strenuous or difficult. They merely require you to think or complete a task that does not require you to go out of your way: “Reflect on the last time you experienced compassion or forgiveness.”

The book itself is simple yet beautifully designed. The red theme makes it feel bright and positive, but it may be more attractive to women than it would be to men. The print is large, clear and easy to read, suitable for all ages and backgrounds.

Although roughly 130 pages, it only takes ten minutes to read from cover to cover, yet this is not the author’s intention. To get the most out of the book, each section/task should be tackled individually to experience the outcome you are hoping for: feeling a sense of gratitude. This is a book that you can return to time and time again, whether you feel motivated or need a little pick me up.

At the back of the book, DiPirro has provided lists of the top ten ways to be grateful in different environments. These are useful when you are experiencing problems at home or work and need help stepping back and seeing the bigger picture.

Overall, Gratitude is a lovely, inexpensive guide to help people gain a more positive outlook on life. Other books in this series focus on different areas of life that people struggle with, e.g. forgiveness and living in the moment. Gratitude is the ideal book to give as a gift to a loved one or even to keep on your bookshelf or bedside table, accessible when needed.

There Will Be Lies
Author: Nick Lake
Published: 6th January 2015
Goodreads Rating: 3.45 out of 5
Reviewed: June 2016

Award-winning Nick Lake has returned to the limelight with a young adult thriller so full of emotion that you will be gripped from beginning to end. There Will Be Lies starts with a happy relationship between mother and daughter, then rips it apart, revealing that everything you once believed is a lie.

From the very beginning, seventeen-year-old Shelby Jane Cooper warns the reader that bad things will happen. She speaks of death and a car collision that is about to occur within the first few chapters of the story. But this is not the climax of the story. It is merely the small stone dropped on the top of a mountain, causing an avalanche of questions, danger and the slowly unravelling truth.

All her life Shelby has been homeschooled, isolated from society and shadowed by her overprotective mother. After being hit by a car, resulting in a fractured foot, Shelby is ushered into a car by her mother and driven in the opposite direction from home. Supposedly an abusive father, a man Shelby cannot recall, is on their tail whom they must hide from to avoid a disastrous confrontation. Despite initially believing this story, peculiar things start happening to Shelby that suggest all is not as it seems.

The first quarter of There Will Be Lies follows a typical contemporary storyline, but as it becomes more thrilling, the author incorporates fantasy/American mythology into the mix. Finding herself slipping in and out of a dying, impossible world known as the Dreaming, Shelby begins to question the things her mother is telling her, especially after being warned that there will be two lies followed by a truth. Yet she cannot work out what they are, and what if the truth is something she cannot – does not want – to consider?

I loved this book from the very beginning. I loved Shelby’s character: the way she spoke, her sarcasm, her wit, and her intelligence. Despite being so sheltered from the world, she was not weird or awkward. What made it even better was discovering she was deaf. Readers will not even be able to guess at that for almost half the novel when Shelby reveals the fact herself. She is not portrayed as stupid or any less human for having a disability. Nick Lake has done a superb job of avoiding any forms of stigma or prejudice.

The fantastical elements, the American mythology, which gave it the appearance of a half fairytale, nearly ruined the entire book. I admit I liked the concept and enjoyed reading the scenes set in the Dreaming, but it seemed so out of place with the rest of the novel, as though Lake had written two different stories and decided to combine them instead of publishing them separately. 

As the story progressed, the relevance of the fairy-tale-like elements became clearer. You cannot say whether the Dreaming was real or whether Shelby was merely doing that: dreaming. The mythological storyline is a metaphorical way of revealing what Shelby was dealing with in the real world. In a place where she was confused about what was true, she needed the Dreaming to explain things to her, to make her understand her predicament.

There Will Be Lies is full of little metaphors, some that you do not notice at first but easily apply to life in general. It is a quotable narrative with beautiful phrasing. With two thrilling storylines that eventually merge, you are guaranteed to be gripped, wanting to know what happens, yet also not wanting it to end.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old
Author: Hendrik Groen
Published: 1st June 2014
Goodreads Rating: 3.94 out of 5
Reviewed: August 2016

Think Adrian Plass but with octogenarians, and this is the result. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old is a years-long journal beginning on 1st January 2013. Hendrik hates old people, an unfortunate predicament as he lives in a home for the elderly. He set himself the task of writing a daily account about the “life of the inmates of a care home in North Amsterdam,” with the purpose of it being read after his death by readers or “inmates” who wish to know what to expect in their old age.

Whether the contents of this diary are true or exaggerated does not matter, as what it produces is a laugh-out-loud story – a pleasure to read. From cake in the fish tank to complaints about leaky nether regions, Hendrik provides a brutally honest account of the highs and lows of being an OAP.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old encompasses a selection of unique and presumably real characters. Readers are bound to discover someone who reminds them of an elderly relative or even themselves! There is the diabetic, rude, gin-loving Evert – Henrdik’s best friend of many years – who is never without a witty comeback for the bossy, self-important director of the home. On the other hand, levelheaded Eefje, who Hendrik is rather fond of, shows a completely different view of elderly mentality. Despite the stereotypes associated with care home patients, Hendrik and his friends still have as much fun as possible; after all, they may be Old but not Dead.

Speaking of Dead, Hendrik makes several jokes and references to euthanasia, which may seem like poor taste to some readers. Yet, when all the friends around you are living the final years of their lives, why not joke about it instead of worry? Naturally, there are sad diary entries about the inevitable deaths of his contemporaries throughout the year, but Hendrik does not let it get him down for long. Hendrik and his close friends make the most of the time they have left, and if that involves speeding along the roads of Amsterdam on their souped-up mobility scooters, then that is exactly what they will do.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old is a gem of a book and comes highly recommended to readers of all ages. Hendrik‘s effortlessly funny, sarcastic remarks stress what the average citizen is too polite to voice. Once you begin, it is hard to put down. Unfortunately, a year is not long enough, and you will end up wanting more. Whatever the future holds, let us hope we become someone like Hendrik Groen.


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If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!