Matthew Dennison rss

‘The Wilderness, Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire’ by Balthasar Nebot

Why is the garden absent in English painting?

8 August 2015

One of the default settings of garden journalists is the adjective ‘painterly’ — applied to careful colour harmonies within a border (or equally considered clashes) and long, swooping vistas. It… Read more

Irish-born soldier and adventurer Colonel Thomas Blood (Photo: Getty)

Colonel Blood: thief turned spy and Royal pensioner

23 May 2015
The Audacious Crimes of Colonel Blood Robert Hutchinson

Weidenfeld, pp.341, £20, ISBN: 9780297870180

In the words of one of his contemporaries ‘a man of down look, lean-faced and full of pock holes’, the 17th-century ne’er-do-well Thomas Blood sounds an unattractive proposition. His latest… Read more

‘Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington’, 1829, by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Wellington's PR machine

28 March 2015
Wellington: Triumphs, Politics & Passions National Portrait Gallery

The history of portraiture is festooned with images of sitters overwhelmed by dress, setting and the accoutrements of worldly success. Vanity, complacency and, frequently, insecurity have led men and women… Read more

Virtually identical in their languorous loucheness. Clockwise from top left: Louise de Kérouaille Barbara Palmer, Moll Davis and Nell Gwyn

The merry monarch and his mistresses; was sex for Charles II a dangerous distraction?

31 January 2015
The King’s Bed: Sex, Power and the Court of Charles II Don Jordan and Michael Walsh

Little Brown, pp.354, £20, ISBN: 9781408704882

In a tone of breezy bravado in keeping with their concept of their subject’s character, Don Jordan and Michael Walsh have written a swashbuckling life of Charles II. This is… Read more


Elizabeth is about to become Britain’s longest-reigning queen. Here’s how she’s changed monarchy

3 January 2015

On 24 September 1896 Queen Victoria was given a present of a paper knife, and expressed herself ‘much delighted’. The handle was set with overlapping gold coins each bearing the… Read more

‘Melting Snow at Wormingford’, 1962, by John Nash

Snow - art’s biggest challenge

13 December 2014

In owning a flock of artificial sheep, Joseph Farquharson must have been unusual among Highland lairds a century ago. His Aberdeenshire estate covered 20,000 acres — surely enough to support… Read more

Ruth Rendell cr Jerry Bauer

Fifty years of Inspector Wexford – and a new detective on the block

16 August 2014
The Girl Next Door Ruth Rendell

Hutchinson, pp.282, £18.99, ISBN: 9780091958831

Early on in The Girl Next Door, Ruth Rendell gives the reader a sharp nudge. ‘Colin Quell had very little interest in people, what they might think, how they might… Read more

Author Graham Swift Photo: Getty

You’ll never look at dried pasta in the same way again

12 July 2014
England and Other Stories Graham Swift

Simon & Schuster, pp.288, £16.99, ISBN: 9781471137396

A calculated ordinariness unites the protagonists in Graham Swift’s new collection of short stories. In each of these mini fictions, as in his novels, Swift revisits his conceit of the… Read more

Passionate Reunion

Not quite romantic fiction, or literary fiction, or commercial fiction – but still quite good

14 June 2014
From a Distance Raffaella Barker

Bloomsbury, pp.336, £16.99, ISBN: 9781408833735

Elements of Raffaella Barker’s new novel, her eighth for adults, suggest commercial fiction: a narrative that oscillates between the aftermath of the second world war and the present day, and… Read more

Margaret Drabble at the offices of publisher McLelland Stewart Photo: Toronto Star via Getty

Margaret Drabble tries to lose the plot

30 November 2013
The Pure Gold Baby Margaret Drabble

Canongate, pp.304, £16.99, ISBN: 9780956868389

Halfway through her new novel, Margaret Drabble tells us of Anna, the pure gold baby of the title, ‘There was no story to her life, no plot.’ That statement is… Read more


The imitable Jeeves

2 November 2013
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells Sebastian Faulks

Hutchinson, pp.272, £16.99, ISBN: 9780091954055

For as long as I can remember — I take neither pleasure nor pride in the admission — I have been one of those people who feels an irresistible curling… Read more

Mrs Bridge and Mr Bridge, by Evan S. Connell - review

8 June 2013
Mr Bridge Evan S. Connell

Penguin Modern Classics, £8.99, ISBN: 9780141198668

Mrs Bridge Evan S. Connell

Penguin Modern Classics, £8.99, ISBN: 9780141198651

A policeman encountering Mrs Bridge on the home furnishings floor of a Kansas City department store recognises her at once for what she is: ‘a bona-fide country-club matron’. Had she… Read more

Another bleak house on the Fens

27 October 2012
Dolly: A Ghost Story Susan Hill

Profile, pp.192, £9.99, ISBN: 9781846685743

The Mist in the Mirror Susan Hill

Chatto, pp.192, £9.99, ISBN: 9780701187866

Some years ago, Susan Hill stated in an interview: ‘It’s not plot that interests me but setting, people in a setting, wrestling with an abstract subject.’ In her ghost stories,… Read more

Old lovers…

7 July 2012
Ancient Light John Banville

Viking, pp.256, 16.99, ISBN: 9780670920617

If it is true that we demand of our favourite authors above all consistency — a certain fidelity to the territory that they have earlier marked out as their own… Read more


Bookends: Tilling tales

21 April 2012

Several years ago, I listed as my literary heroes Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations and E. F. Benson’s Lucia. The latter was the more damaging admission. Lucia is an egotist… Read more

060060_Winterhalter_Prince Albert

Prince of progress

10 December 2011

The tragedy of Prince Albert was not that he died at the age of forty-two 150 years ago this month, but that his quick-tempered and lusty Hanoverian wife loved him… Read more

Death of the Author

5 March 2011
Today David Miller

Atlantic Books, pp.176, 12.99

The death of the Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad is the central event of David Miller’s debut novel. The death of the Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad is the central… Read more


UnEnglish triumph

30 October 2010

Sometimes an exhibition does what it says on the tin. The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy, the Ashmolean’s first major show post-revamp, is such an exhibition. Sometimes an exhibition does what it… Read more

Pass the cheese, Louise

23 October 2010
The Winds of Heaven Monica Dickens

Persephone, pp.320, 12

Widowhood in 1955 was not a desirable state. Not, at any rate, for Louise Bickford, heroine of The Winds of Heaven (first published in 1955, now reprinted by Persephone). Louise… Read more


More than a painter of Queens

30 June 2010
Philip De Laszlo: His Life and Art Duff Hart-Davis

Yale, pp.412, 30

The last words of Hungarian-born portraitist Philip de László, spoken to his nurse, were apparently, ‘It is a pity, because there is so much still to do.’ As Duff Hart-Davis’s… Read more

Big frocks, silk stockings and lissom ladies

14 December 2009

Matthew Dennison on the life of Augustus Harris, the Victorian showman who invented the Christmas pantomime and pioneered sex, celebrity and excess as an art form Forget Lord Leighton and his… Read more

Dog days for British breeds

25 November 2009

Imagine the scenario. You are a military man who retires at 40. Able-bodied, cushioned by a small army pension and the income from a rural estate in west Wales, you… Read more

Strangely familiar

12 August 2009
Family Album Penelope Lively

Penguin/Fig Tree, pp.259, 16.99

In 1935, Noël Coward included in his series of playlets, Tonight at 8.30, a jaunty, song-filled exposé, in Victorian dress, of fam- ily relationships, Family Album. Penelope Lively’s novel of… Read more


The day the music died

15 April 2009
The Immortals Amit Chaudhuri

Picador, pp.404, 16.99

An earnest young man upbraids his singing teacher. ‘Why don’t you sing classical more often?’ It is Bombay in the early Eighties. The young man’s father has enjoyed a successful… Read more

Not just for Christmas

29 December 2008

I live with a supermodel — excessively fussy about diet and grooming. Sadly this gorgeous creature has four legs not two, and is a boy not a girl. He is… Read more