Women on a wind-swept island: Hagstone, by Sinéad Gleeson, reviewed

This absorbing and wild debut feels at once muzzily folkloric and sharply contemporary. It follows Nell, an artist who lives on a wind-whipped island without ties or commitments – until, that is, a group of women living an even quieter life commission her to make an artwork that will tell their story. The Inions, as they’re known, have come from all over the world to Rathglas, a crumbling old convent overlooking the sea. Naturally, rumours abound about them being a cult or a coven, but really they’re ‘ordinary women wanting a different kind of life’, who have rejected hatred and inequality in favour of seclusion and simplicity. Gleeson, who in

Why are the Japanese so obsessed with the cute?

Joshua Paul Dale is a professor of American literature and culture at Chuo University in Tokyo and a pioneer in what is apparently a burgeoning academic field called ‘Cute Studies’ – or what Damon Runyon might have called ‘Pretty Cute’ Studies, as in ‘“Are You Kidding Me? You Study This?” Studies.’ In fairness, Dale makes a strong case for his subject to be taken seriously. Irresistible is packed with references to all sorts of neuroscientific studies and cultural studies and studies about theories of animal domestication and the evolution of ‘affiliative social behaviour’, which lead Dale to posit that cuteness is a ‘species-wide emotion’. Is it an emotion? I don’t

The beauty of medieval bestiaries

How to hunt an elephant. Find a tree and saw most of the way through it without felling it. Sooner or later an unwary elephant is bound to lean up against it. Down comes the tree and down comes the elephant, which, since it has no joints in its legs, will be unable to get up again. Dispatch your elephant with, um, dispatch, lest the herd arrives in answer to its plangent call. In that case, the youngest of them, being lower to the ground, will be able to lift their fallen comrade back on its feet. When smaller birds flock around an owl in an Old English sermon, they

The force of nature that drove Claude Monet

There have been some really good biographies of artists over recent years and what distinguishes the best of them is their sense of context and a lucid prose free from the jargon of the art historian. In the end, of course, any work of art has to be able to stand by itself, but for Jackie Wullschläger her appreciation of Monet’s paintings has been immeasurably deepened by her sense of the man behind them. ‘My approach,’ she writes, ‘stems from the belief that painters transform the raw material of experience into art’, and that material, both the familiar external events and, more illuminatingly, the inner man, is what she gives

With Ewan Venters

37 min listen

Ewan Venters is the former chief executive of Fortnum & Mason and is now the CEO of Artfarm and Hauser & Wirth. Ewan is launching Artfarm’s first London venture combining food, drink and art which will also mark the revival of the historic Mayfair landmark, The Audley. Presented by Olivia Potts.Produced by Linden Kemkaran.

The splendour of Edinburgh’s new Scottish galleries 

For nearly 50 years, the Scottish collection at Edinburgh’s National Galleries has been housed in a gloomy subterranean space beneath the main gallery, rarely visited, never celebrated. If you didn’t know it was there, don’t be ashamed. Just 19 per cent of visitors ventured into the bowels to find the jumble of Scottish paintings, dimly lit and hanging on colour-sucking, mucky green walls above a depressing brown carpet. Of those who did get there, lots immediately turned and fled back upstairs to the luminous comforts of Titian, Velazquez and Rubens. Safe to say, the space was not exactly showcasing Scottish art; a puzzling strategy for the country’s flagship gallery. The

Lumpy, bulgy, human: Threads, at Arnolfini Bristol, reviewed

Trophy office blocks designed as landmarks are not welcoming to humans; their glass and steel reception areas feel more suited to robots. But this summer the cavernous lobbies of two City buildings – 99 Bishopsgate and 30 Fenchurch Street – have been humanised by To Boldly Sew, an exhibition of wall hangings by the winner of this year’s Brookfield Properties Crafts Award, Alice Kettle. As the owners of Renaissance palazzi and Jacobean mansions understood, wall hangings bring warmth and colour to a cold interior: once more prized than paintings, they doubled as decorations and draught excluders. Now, dignified with the name of ‘fibre arts’, fabrics are back in the fine-art

Our great art institutions have reduced British history to a scrapheap of shame

Let’s indulge in some identity politics for a second: I am from Hong Kong, born as a subject of the last major colony of the British Empire, minority-ethnic, descended from Chinese refugees, now living here in exile. This summer, both the National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain are presenting new displays that are meant to reflect the ‘inclusive’ and ‘diverse’ identities of Britain. Supposedly, I fit nicely among their target audience. In reality, as an immigrant looking to be included in this nation, I am perplexed by my visits. For two publicly funded museums tasked with telling the story of this country through the portraiture of its eminent figures and

The secret life of China’s Banksy

The crypt of St John’s Waterloo feels serene and secure, a world away from the bustling city above. ‘I will spend the day here, because I feel safe here,’ Badiucao tells me. The dissident political cartoonist, who has been called ‘China’s Banksy’, is preparing to display his work on the crypt’s newly restored brick walls as part of an exhibition by exiled artists. ‘I don’t walk alone in any city. I don’t feel safe,’ he says. I meet him soon after he flies in from Warsaw, where the Chinese government tried to close down his solo show, ‘Tell China’s Story Well’. Chinese diplomats pressured the Polish government and the Ujazdowski

How to combine city break and safari in Kenya

Nairobi is blossoming. With its vibrant art world, nascent farm-to-fork restaurant scene and unique hotels, east Africa’s biggest city is increasingly on the radar of international travellers. ‘We’re definitely seeing people wanting to stay longer in Nairobi,’ says Rose Hipwood of the Luxury Safari Company. ‘It’s absolutely a cosmopolitan city now. Rather than flying in and flying straight out on safari, people are wanting to extend their stays and see what restaurants, bars and museums there are.’ The country’s safari offering is developing, too. Away from the crowds of the Maasai Mara, lesser-known hotspots are finding a following – devoid of people but brimming with nature. As Kenya marks 60 years

In celebration of Gilbert and George

I’d always questioned the creative genius of self-confessed ‘living sculptures’ Gilbert and George. Their dogged determination to be seen as ‘different’ felt archly self-conscious and not particularly interesting. Like so many fly-by-night avant-gardists of the 1960s, the duo’s ‘originality’ tended to hang on hoary old controversies such as scatological imagery, sex and nudity – hardly revolutionary even back then. But listening to the pair’s touching interview with John Wilson on BBC Radio 4’s This Cultural Life recently made me reassess their contribution not just to art, but to the gaiety of the nation. George is now in his early eighties with Gilbert not far behind, and what I found refreshing about these two throwbacks to a more

Home is where the art is: inside J.M.W Turner’s last house

Joseph Mallord William Turner continues to occupy a singular place in British cultural consciousness. The English Romantic artist, watercolourist and printmaker – often referred to as ‘the painter of light’ – elevated landscape painting to high art and, when he died in 1851, left a legacy of 550 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolours and 30,000 works on paper. When one of these surfaces at auction, it sells for tens of millions of pounds. However, most of his works – with the power of nature, the sea and the industrial revolution as central themes – were bequeathed to the nation. A collection of 300 oil paintings in the Clore Gallery, at Tate

How to see two sides of Vermeer in the Netherlands

Why is it that the world of critics, gallery-goers and art-lovers is so overwhelmingly enthralled by Johannes Vermeer? His subjects – quiet interior scenes with women writing letters or playing music – are hardly the stuff of radical innovation or surprise. He wasn’t even that original: his works often have a similar focus to those by his contemporaries from the Dutch Golden Age, from Pieter de Hooch to Jan Verkolje. Nor is his biography the perfect fodder for endless books and feverish interest. So little is known about the man, and his way of painting, that the moniker he was given by the French art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger in the

The Whale is a work of art

If the 20th century was the age of the common man, the 21st is the age of the common man’s confounding. Between shambolic politics, culture wars and actual war, nothing is turning out quite as well as anyone expected. What was meant to be an era of freedom and enlightenment seems to have become the opposite.   Nowhere is this more evident than in the way we interact with one another. In what feels like the blink of an eye, discourse, and by extension society, has taken up residence on the internet. The pace of the outrage cycle has gathered such speed that we must always be finding something new

The remaking of Gainsborough’s House

From the road Gainsborough’s House looks like it could be a thoroughly plausible restaurant in a town like Godalming or Chertsey, the sort of place where a prawn cocktail costs £15 and comes with most of a lemon in a white gauze satchel on a separate plate. The stout two-storey structure is Georgian, red brick and has a front door flanked by a pair of handsome Regency windows. Glance up the neighbouring side street, however, and you immediately see that something extraordinary has happened: there’s an enormous, ultra-modern, industrial-looking extension to the rear in brick and flint. Is it a carbuncle? I’ll leave you to decide, but yes, I’m confident

The Lord of Misrule and the lost spirit of Christmas past

The Lord of Misrule is surely the jolliest spirit of Christmas past. He is certainly the best named. He used to gambol through cities and courts, churchyards and dining rooms, telling jokes, performing tricks and spreading good cheer. Society shook itself upside down at his coming, so knaves played at being kings, children became miniature tyrants and noblemen misplaced their manners (an exercise in which some, admittedly, needed little assistance). His origins can be traced back to ancient Rome, where each December masters and slaves swapped places for the festival of Saturnalia and engaged in various acts of tomfoolery while gorging on food and wine. These traditions survived the advent

How to protest the protestors

These are bleak times in our land, and we must take our pleasures where we can. Personally I have been able to find a great deal of consolation over recent days in watching members of the public confronting protestors from the Just Stop Oil movement. There is some especially pleasing footage of van drivers in south London hauling protestors off the roads by the scruff of their necks. The colourful language which accompanies these acts is an additional delight, for the irate British public is not always immune to using words that polite people might deplore. All the videos bring some satisfaction. This week a strange-looking man-child with a comb-over

How to stop Just Stop Oil

The National Gallery is home to Van Gogh’s still life Sunflowers. It’s an oil on canvas that, according to the Times, has been valued at £75 million. It is a cherished work of modern European art and one of the most important to come from the post-impressionist movement. This morning, two activists from Just Stop Oil went into Room 43 of the National Gallery and drenched Sunflowers in Heinz cream of tomato soup, before glueing themselves to the wall. One of the young women said:  Is art worth more than life? More than food? More than justice? The cost of living crisis is driven by fossil fuels. Everyday life has become

Neon signs have a curious power

In a corner of St Pancras station, Tracey Emin is always turned on. ‘I want my time with you’, a neon sculpture by the artist, has been on show here since 2018. It was part of the ‘annual’ Terrace Wires public arts programme, in which a new work is commissioned every year to hang from the station’s roof; but the pandemic distended time, and Emin’s words have stayed put. Though a new commission was unveiled yesterday, an installation by Shezad Dawood, that hangs on different wires, elsewhere in the terminus. Assembled from bright pink tubes, and shaped like Emin’s looping script, ‘I want my time with you’ looms over the grand

The ‘delishious’ letters of Lucian Freud

Love him or loathe him, Lucian Freud was a maverick genius whose life from the off was as singular as his paintings were celebrated. He never really knew his famous grandfather, who left Vienna in 1938 only a year before his death, and one can only speculate what Sigmund would have made of his wayward and wildly gifted grandson on the strength of this effervescent collection of early correspondence. He certainly would have admired it on aesthetic grounds: a handsome quarto volume, cloth-bound and embossed, whose contents are a model of intelligent design. Every one of the missives – letters, postcards, scraps of paper – is reproduced in facsimile, with