×

Biography

Peter Levi Photo: Getty

Peter Levi – poet, priest and life-enhancer

30 August 2014
Peter Levi: Oxford Romantic Brigid Allen

Signal Books,, pp.452, £19.99, ISBN: 9781903493989

Hilaire Belloc was once being discussed on some television programme. One of the panellists was Peter Levi. The other critics expressed their doubts about the old boy. Levi leaned forward… Read more

‘While some observers were impressed, others felt the depiction of a doddery Churchill propped up on a walking stick unbecoming’

The lost Victorian who sculpted Churchill

16 August 2014
Abstraction and Reality: The Sculpture of Ivor Roberts-Jones Jonathan Black and Sara Ayres

Philip Wilson Publishers, pp.320, £25, ISBN: 9781781300107

Ivor Roberts-Jones was in many ways the right artist at the wrong time. Had the sculptor been born a few decades earlier and worked in the Victorian age, when statues… Read more

Chris Barber Photo: Redferns/Getty

Chris Barber should let someone meaner tell his story

16 August 2014
Jazz Me Blues Chris Barber, with Alyn Shipton

Equinos Publishing, pp.172, £19.99, ISBN: 9781845530884

Chris Barber, still going strong with his big band, was born in 1930. He heard jazz as a schoolboy on the radio programme Music While You Work and tried to… Read more

Composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle Photo: Redferns

The yes-no-maybe world of Harrison Birtwistle

31 May 2014
Harrison Birtwistle: Wild Tracks Fiona Maddocks

Faber, pp.318, £22.50, ISBN: 9780571308118

For better or worse, we live in the age of the talking composer. Some talk well, some badly, a few — the strong, silent types — keep their mouths shut,… Read more

Edgar Degas - Dancer slipping on her shoe (1874)

Ladies' hats were his waterlillies - the obsessive brilliance of Edgar Degas

19 April 2014
Edgar Degas: Drawings and Pastels Christopher Lloyd

Thames and Hudson, pp.320, £24.95, ISBN: 9780500093818

Lucian Freud once said that ‘being able to draw well is the hardest thing — far harder than painting, as one can easily see from the fact that there are… Read more

The Wyndham Sisters, 1899, by John Singer Sargent. Left to right: Madeline, Pamela and Mary

My family's better days

18 January 2014
Those Wild Wyndhams: Three Sisters at the Heart of Power Claudia Renton

William Collins, pp.492, £25, ISBN: 9780007544899

The Sargent painting reproduced opposite suggests the wealth and comfort that these three sisters, Mary, Madeline and Pamela, were born to. Their father, Percy Wyndham, was the younger son of… Read more

‘Grace Higgens in the Kitchen’ by Vanessa Bell

The Angel of Charleston, by Stewart MacKay - review

18 January 2014
The Angel of Charleston Stewart MacKay

The British Library, pp.160, £16.99, ISBN: 9780712358675

Above the range in the kitchen at Charleston House is a painted inscription: ‘Grace Higgens worked here for 50 years & more, she was a good friend to all Charlestonians.’… Read more

The young Clarice Lispector was strikingly beautiful, with catlike green eyes and ‘very, very sexy’, remembered a friend

'She's the most important Jewish writer since Kafka!'

11 January 2014
Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector Benjamin Moser

Penguin Books, pp.479, £12.99, ISBN: 9781846147814

The Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector was a riddlesome and strange personality. Strikingly beautiful, with catlike green eyes, she died in Rio de Janeiro in 1977 at the age of only… Read more

Coloured photograph of Princess Louise dating from the early 1880s by the society photographer Alexander Bassano

What was the secret of Queen Victoria's rebel daughter?

11 January 2014
The Mystery of Princess Louise Lucinda Hawksley

Chatto, pp.374, £25, ISBN: 9780701183493

Princess Louise (1848–1939), Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, was the prettiest and liveliest of the five princesses, and the only one who broke out of the royal bubble. Artistically talented, she… Read more

Claire Bloom in Brideshead Revisited (Photo: ITV/REX)

The Roth of tenderness and of rage

4 January 2014
Roth Unbound Claudia Roth Pierpont

Cape, pp.368, £25, ISBN: 9780374280512

In the autumn of 2012, Philip Roth told a French magazine that his latest book, Nemesis, would be his last. The storm of interest this created was surprising, given that… Read more

Two faces of Bernard Berenson

How honest was Bernard Berenson?

14 December 2013
Bernard Berenson Rachel Cohen

Yale University Press, pp.288, £18.99, ISBN: 9780300149425

When the great Jewish-American art expert Bernard Berenson died in 1959, he had acquired the status of a sort of sage. He was the relic of a prewar culture that… Read more

Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Marianne Moore Photo: Getty

The mad, mum-fixated maiden aunt of modernism

7 December 2013
Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore Linda Leavell

Faber, pp.455, £30, ISBN: 9780571301829

Marianne Moore’s poems are notoriously ‘difficult’ but her personality and the circumstances of her life are as fascinating today as they were to the avant-garde writers and artists of 1920s… Read more

Desmond Fitzgerald, the 29th Knight of Glin, alongside his French wife Louise de la Falaise, 1966 Photo: Getty

The Last Knight, by Robert O’Byrne - review

30 November 2013
The Last Knight: A Tribute to Desmond Fitzgerald, 29th Knight of Glin Robert O’Byrne

Lilliput Press, pp.224, £15, ISBN: 9781843514084

I have to declare an interest: for many years the Knight and I were the closest of friends until a sequence of his unpredictable and volcanic rages drove us apart.… Read more

David Bowie with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in 1973 (Photo: Keystone/Getty)

One Leg Too Few may be one biography too many

16 November 2013
One Leg Too Few William Cook

Preface, pp.704, £25, ISBN: 978184809333

It’s no joke, writing about comedians. Their work is funny, their lives are not. Rightly honouring the former while accurately relaying the disasters of the latter is a challenge few… Read more

‘Swing’, acrylic and collage on canvas, 2003

The abstract art full of 'breasts and bottoms'

9 November 2013
Terry Frost: A Painter’s Life Roger Bristow

Sansom & Co, pp.253, £30, ISBN: 9781906593780

Is there any such thing as abstract art? Narratives and coherent harmonies seem to me always to emerge from the shapes and colours. Picasso’s cubist planes, as critics have noticed,… Read more

Rhondda1

The man who shared a bed with D.H. Lawrence and Dylan Thomas (though not together)

9 November 2013
Rhys Davies: A Writer’s Life Meic Stephens

Parthian Books, pp.364, £20, ISBN: 9781908946713

Rhys Davies was a Welsh writer in English who lived most of his life in London, that Tir na nÓg in the east, the place of eternal youth and beauty… Read more

Photograph courtesy of Tina and Terence dooley

Why did Penelope Fitzgerald start writing so late? 

2 November 2013
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life Hermione Lee

Chatto, pp.508, £25, ISBN: 9780701184957

‘Experiences aren’t given us to be “got over”, otherwise they would hardly be experiences.’ The opening sentence of the first draft of The Bookshop, published in 1978 when Penelope Fitzgerald… Read more

Orwell

George Orwell's doublethink

26 October 2013
George Orwell: English Rebel Robert Colls

OUP, pp.304, £25, ISBN: 9780199680801

This is the most sensible and systematic interpretation of George Orwell’s books that I have ever read. It generously acknowledges the true stature of the great works — most notably,… Read more

J.S. Bach: more complex and human than 
the Haussmann portrait suggests

Was Bach as boring as this picture suggests?

26 October 2013
Music in the Castle of Heaven John Eliot Gardiner

Allen Lane, pp.629, £30, ISBN: 9780713996623

What, one wonders, will John Eliot Gardiner be chiefly remembered for? Perhaps, by many who have worked with him, for his notorious rudeness to performers and colleagues. At one point… Read more

Landseer’s portrait of Queen Victoria riding in Windsor Home Park four years after the death of Prince Albert

Queen Victoria, by Matthew Dennison - review

12 October 2013
Queen Victoria: A Life of Contradictions Matthew Dennison

Collins, pp.189, £16.99, ISBN: 9780007504572

When Prince Albert died in 1861, aged 42, Queen Victoria, after briefly losing the use of her legs, ordered that every room and corridor in Windsor Castle should be draped… Read more

Basil Bunting, 1980
(Photo: Jonathan Williams/
Basil Bunting Poetry Archive, Durham University Library)

A Strong Song Tows Us, by Richard Burton - review

12 October 2013
A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting Richard Burton

Infiniteideas, pp.608, £30, ISBN: 9781908984

How minor is minor? ‘Rings a bell’ was more or less the response of two English literature graduates, now successful fifty-somethings, when asked what the name Basil Bunting meant to… Read more

Mary Evans picture library

Music at Midnight, by John Drury - review

28 September 2013
Music at Midnight John Drury

Allen Lane, pp.416, £25, ISBN: 9781846142482

When John Drury, himself an Anglican divine, told James Fenton (the son of a canon of Christ Church) that he was writing about George Herbert, Fenton replied with gnomic brio… Read more

A Punch caricature of Wilkie Collins, emphasising his sensationalism

Wilkie Collins by Andrew Lycett - review

21 September 2013
Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation Andrew Lycett

Hutchinson, pp.522, £20, ISBN: 9780091937096

In the outrageous 2010 press hounding of the innocent schoolteacher Christopher Jefferies over the murder of his young female tenant (of which a neighbour, Vincent Tabak, was later convicted and… Read more

‘Uncle Bill’ as the troops remembered him

Uncle Bill, by Russell Miller - review

14 September 2013
Uncle Bill: The Authorised Biography of Field Marshal Viscount Slim Russell Miller

Weidenfeld, pp.466, £25, ISBN: 9780297865841

Given the outcome of recent military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is pertinent to look for one particular quality in our senior commander: honesty. In other words, after blaming… Read more

Olivier in one of his most celebrated roles as Shakespeare’s Henry V in the 1944 film

Olivier, by Philip Ziegler - review

7 September 2013
Olivier Philip Ziegler

Maclehose Press, pp.460, £25, ISBN: 9780857051196

Philip Ziegler is best known for his biographies, often official, of politicians, royalty  and soldiers. They include Harold Wilson, Edward VIII and Louis Mountbatten, whose correspondence he also edited. What… Read more