The real deal | 20 April 2017

How about this for an inspiring response to what could have been a personal tragedy. Chi-chi Nwanoku was in the sixth form at school, a promising athlete hoping to represent Great Britain as a 100-metre sprinter, when she injured her knee playing football. ‘It was a poignantly painful moment,’ she recalls, but thanks to a far-seeing music teacher and headmaster, and her own inimitable character, the accident was turned into a springboard not just for her but, through her, for many other young musicians too. When she returned to school, she was told, ‘We think you could have a career in music,’ and she was taken into the music room

The pick-up artists who seduced a country

Many years ago, when I was a mere slip of a features journalist, I spent a weekend learning how to be a pick-up artist. Amazing. You assume it won’t work, that sort of thing, but it totally did. Towards the end of the second night, having not said an unscripted word in about half an hour, I found myself in the VIP room of a London nightclub, being gazed at in rapt adoration by a wildly attractive twentysomething blonde. Seriously, people don’t normally look at me like that. It was special. And then I ran away, terrified, because I had a girlfriend. My guide through all this was a man

What is it with luvvies wanting to be ‘thoroughly European’?

There’s always room for one more on the Ship of Fools, and Tom McCarthy has just booked his passage. The English novelist (no, I’d never heard of him, either) has written a column of such fifth-form puerility in the Guardian that it marks him down as a dunce of exceptional plumage. Make way, Hadley Freeman. Step aside, Zoe Williams. There’s a chap out there who can give you five yards and still beat you to the tape. McCarthy, of Dulwich College and Oxford (just right for the Guardian), is in a frightful bate because he has been invited to a bash at the Royal Academy to celebrate British art and

How Taylor Swift socked it to Apple over a weekend

All hail Taylor Swift. How she must give baby boomers the fear. Not just baby boomers. Also those who came next, the Generation Xers, who seemed to define themselves culturally mainly via goatees, apathy and heroin. And my own rather listless, half-generation thereafter, with our bigger beards and binge-drinking. Taylor Swift makes us all look old. Because we are old and the world will be hers. You will have heard about her victory over Apple this week — you must have heard about it, because an opportunity to put Taylor Swift on the front of a newspaper is an opportunity not to be missed, particularly now that Elizabeth Hurley is

Letters | 21 May 2015

Soldiering on Sir: Max Hastings’s article about demobbed army officers trying for a job after the war struck a chord (‘Demob unhappy’, 16 May). The problem prevailed. I left as a captain many years later in 1978. The local vicar asked what I was going to do with myself, adding scornfully, ‘Go into commerce, I suppose. Well, even that might be a struggle for someone who knows little else other than to play cowboys and shoot Indians!’ Somewhat bemused, I asked where his Sunday collections came from if — either directly or indirectly — it wasn’t commerce. He wasn’t pleased with this. Luckily, a few months later I was hired

Like Birdsong – only cheerful

It is difficult to know whether Clive Aslet intended a comparison between his debut novel, The Birdcage, set in Salonica during the first world war, and Sebastian Faulks’s similarly titled Birdsong. Whilst Faulks’s novel sits comfortably within the generally accepted narrative that the first world war was an unmitigated disaster, with lion-like Tommies led by donkey-like officers, Aslet has written what is effectively a panegyric to the officer class. Indeed, so casually heroic is every officer in the book it is almost as though Richard Attenborough’s version of Oh! What a Lovely War never existed. The Birdcage begins with the almost Wodehouse-inspired scene of the first ascent in a balloon

Jeanette Winterson is not the only artist to have enjoyed killing animals

It seems as if the author Jeanette Winterson might have a bit of a pest control problem. ‘Rabbit ate my parsley’, she tweeted, ‘I am eating the rabbit.’ Accompanied, of course, by step-by-step photos of said rabbit, from skinning to Aga. Fair enough, many might say. At least she was sensible enough to eat the rabbit that she killed (and she even gave the cat the innards. So in the process, she saved on one supermarket chicken, and one tin of Whiskas. Pretty good going, I’d say.) But she’s far from the only artist who has demonstrated a fondness for either killing animals, or for using them as artistic props. Hemingway

There was good art under Franco

Everyone knows about the Spanish civil war, first battlefield in the struggle that broke out in 1936 and ended nine years later in the ruins of Berlin. It has been immortalised in the work of Hemingway, Orwell and Koestler and commemorated in the heroic deeds of the International Brigades. This is how it is remembered by Camilo José Cela, the conservative novelist and Nobel Prize winner: To the conscripts of 1937, all of whom lost something: their life, their freedom, their dreams, their hope, their decency. And not to the adventurers from abroad, Fascists and Marxists, who had their fill of killing Spaniards like rabbits and whom no one had

Hogarth and the harlots of Covent Garden were many things, but they weren’t ‘bohemians’

It was Hazlitt who said of Hogarth that his pictures ‘breathe a certain close, greasy, tavern air’, and the same could be said of this book. It describes the fermenting stews of 18th-century Covent Garden, and the pungent work of the artists who lived and worked among them, Hog- arth and Thomas Rowlandson in particular. You could read it as a baggy prequel to Vic Gatrell’s marvellous, Wolfson Prize- winning study of post-1780 caricaturists, City of Laughter. The ‘ring of antique courts and alleys that laid siege to the Piazza’ of Covent Garden covered no more than a quarter of a square mile of London but, according to Gatrell, they

The pen was mightier than the brush

Of the making of books about the Pre-Raphaelites, it appears, there is no end. Like the Bloomsberries, most of the PRB are more interesting to read about than the study of their work would suggest: a few towering talents stalk the mountaintops, while many lesser ones lurk in valleys and foothills. George Boyce was one of those lesser talents — a watercolourist of some small fame among his colleagues (although he was 52 before he was elected to full membership of the Old Water-Colour Society). His friend Henry Tanworth Wells had more worldly recognition, if not the esteem of the avant-garde: as a portraitist he painted the great, the good,

An enigma wrapped in a conundrum

What to make of Banksy? Artist or vandal? Tate Modern holds no Banksys and, other than a redundant phone box that he folded in half and pretended to have reconfigured with a pickaxe, Banksy has never destroyed anything. So I ask my 15-year-old son what he knows of him: ‘He’s the guy who did the policeman with the Tesco bag, who does really cool graffiti, not lame stuff, and no one knows who he is.’ Actually, we do know who he is. His identity was discovered some years ago by the Daily Mail, an organ neither beloved nor believed by those who follow Banksy. But because the public loves a

The picture of health

It must have been hard to settle on a title for this book; but then this is not the book that Richard Cork originally had in mind.  In his introduction to The Healing Presence of Art he describes how he was approached to write on the contemporary role of art in hospitals, but in beginning the research for this he became aware, as he puts it, ‘of the rich, complex and largely overlooked tradition’ to which modern art and medicine are the heirs.   It is this vast hinterland that forms the theme of Cork’s book. It is neither ‘art in hospitals’, nor ‘art and medicine’ nor ‘art as therapy’

Where dreams take shape

The question of what artists actually get up to in their studios has always intrigued the rest of us — that mysterious alchemical process of transforming base materials into gold, or at least into something marketable in the present volatile art world. Today’s studio might as likely be a laptop as laboratory, factory, hangar or garden shed, but is nevertheless an apt prism through which to explore the notion of creativity, and this boldly ambitious volume does just that, interviewing 120 British artists in a freewheeling way about their practice and process, inspiration and ideas. Sanctuary pays tribute to Private View, that inimitable portrait by John Russell, Bryan Robertson and

A fine and private painter

Prunella Clough was a modest and self-effacing artist who nevertheless produced some of the most consistently original and innovative British art of the second half of the 20th century. She was by no means reclusive, enjoying an extensive social and teaching life, but she deliberately kept a low profile, being famously guarded with biographical details. So much so, that a couple of young artists I knew in the mid-1980s were convinced that Clough was already dead, though she continued to paint and exhibit sporadically until her death in 1999. How refreshing this is in an age of seemingly unbounded artistic egos, when relentless self-obsession has to make up for lack

Portraits of an age

By a fine coincidence, two legendary icons of British art were being feted in London on the same evening last month, and both are primarily famous, to the public at least, for their depiction of the Queen. At the National Portrait Gallery, the director Sandy Nairne hosted a dinner to celebrate the portrait oeuvre of Lucian Freud, while the Victoria and Albert Museum opened its major exhibition of Cecil Beaton’s lifetime lensing of Elizabeth II. In the 1950s these two artists were the epitome of London society. Beaton, by way of his groomed exquisite taste and laconic manner, was the epicene idol of sophisticated drawing rooms; the nascent Freud, 30-odd,

A holy terror

In the summer of 1520, Michelangelo Buonarotti wrote a letter of recommendation on behalf of his protégé, the painter Sebastiano del Piombo, to Cardinal Bibbiena, an influential figure at the court of Pope Leo X. The testimonial carried some weight, for Michelangelo was by now Italy’s most admired sculptor, with what are nowadays called ‘signature achievements’ such as the David, the Pietà and the Dying Slave to his credit. Seven years earlier, what is more, he had completed the magisterial decoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, among the most ambitious  projects in the history of painting, for Pope Julius II. It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to find

Oh brother!

Long in the writing, deep in research, heavy to hold, this is the latest of umpteen biographies of Vincent van Gogh (1853-90). But it should be said straightaway that it is extremely readable, contains new material and is freshly, even startlingly re-interpretative of a life whose bare bones are very familiar. The more one reads, the more absorbing it becomes, both in its breadth of approach and its colossal detail. Potential readers, however, should be warned: this is no sentimentalising study, no apologia for the excesses of the ‘mad genius’ of popular renown. Quite the contrary: one’s dismay intensifies as the self-crucifixion of Van Gogh’s life unfolds, disaster after disaster

Don’t mention the war

It wasn’t easy being the daughter of the artist Avigdor Arikha. In this memoir, Alba Arikha mixes teenage fury with glimpses of her godfather Samuel Beckett and a fragmented account of her father’s experiences of the Holocaust. Avigdor Arikha and his wife, the poet Anne Atik, surrounded themselves with the intelligentsia of Paris and drove their daughter mad: ‘I resent their purity and knowledge. Their values and morals. My father’s anger. My mother’s goodness.’ Avigdor Arikha was an irascible, dismissive and earnestly didactic father. Alba paid no attention when he tried to teach her about the Sumerians; she would not stay quiet when he discussed art and politics with his

William Nicholson: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings by Patricia Reed

A pleasingly tactile canvas-like cover adorns this heavy book and proclaims its purpose; the boldly brushed illustration is a detail from ‘Mauve Primulas on a Table’ painted in January 1928 when the artist was in his mid-fifties. He wrote of a ‘painting orgy’ and how he suffered ‘tennis-elbow from holding my brush for 8 hours solid’. Patricia Reed’s catalogue note adds, ‘the work is a synthesis of the motifs that interested him at this moment: a tilted picture plane, textured cloth, penumbrated shadows, a cropped bowl and a pair of open scissors’. It is pertinent to follow with a quote from Merlin James’s introductory essay on Nicholson’s ‘Painting and Experience’,

A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney by Martin Gayford

Like his contemporary and fellow Yorkshireman, Alan Bennett, whom he slightly resembles physically, David Hockney has been loved and admired throughout his lifetime. He painted one of his greatest works, ‘A Grand Procession of Dignitaries in the Semi-Egyptian Style’ in 1961 while still at the Royal College of Art. He has dazzled, surprised and often upset the world of art ever since. Picasso aside, he is the wittiest modern painter, in the sense not just of being funny, but intelligent; a whole history of Western art is both contained and extended by his originality. For example, it was both funny, and in the 1960s brave, to apply Boucher’s soft pornography