Biography

Albrecht Dürer’s genius for self-promotion

Albrecht Dürer, one of the most narcissistic artists that ever lived (and it’s a crowded field), would have loved this book. It lays out methodically, with academic brilliance, the marketplace, techno-aware basis of the ‘Dürer Renaissance’ and the artist’s rise to immortal fame. With a glorious accumulation of detail, assiduous research and – as she acknowledges before her exciting journey begins – the benefit of ‘magnificent institutional support’, Ulinka Rublack, a history professor at Cambridge University, delivers a deluxe book, with chapter and verse to support her grand subtitle: ‘Art and Society at the Dawn of a Global World’. Dürer depicted himself in the central panel of the lost altarpiece

The Teutonic goddess who ‘created’ the Rolling Stones

Feminism? Pfft! Marianne Faithfull practically spat the word at me when I interviewed her in 2017. Then she rowed back, conceding that she’d spent most of her life ‘standing up for women’s rights… I’ve had to.’ Pallenberg humilated, seduced, empowered, educated, bonded and divided the band as the whim took her In chronic pain with arthritis, she’d struggled into a comfy chair while directing me to squat on the mucky floor at her feet. Who could blame her? From the moment the record producer and impresario Andrew Loog Oldham first packaged her as a teenage ‘angel with big tits’, the media had refused to treat her with respect. She’d been

Why did Truman Capote betray his ‘swans’ so cruelly?

The first rule in John Updike’s code of book reviewing is: try to understand what the author wished to do and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt. I should therefore not blame Laurence Leamer for failing to capture in Capote’s Women any sense of what made Truman Capote irresistibly attractive to all sorts of people – rich, poor, male, female and especially to his flock of high-society swans, the women of Leamer’s title. Nor should I blame him for failing to identify what made Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood both beloved by critics and hugely popular. I can’t blame Leamer, because what

A Blakean heaven or hell: fish with coloured lanterns and teeth like primeval beasts

Sometime in the early 1940s, when he was living in exile in LA, Thomas Mann picked up a copy of the National Geographic. Leafing through it, he found an article whose strapline was a Jules Verne novel in summary: ‘Half a Mile Down: Strange Creatures, Beautiful and Grotesque as Figments of Fancy, Reveal Themselves at Windows of the Bathysphere.’ Next to dark, exotic images of what appeared to be alien life from the abyssal depths of the sea was an account of how the author, a scientist named William Beebe, had become the 20th century’s first aquanaut in exploits so sensational that live radio broadcasts were made of his dives,

Barbara Ker-Seymer – Bright Young Person in the shadows

English Modernism was graced by five daring and gifted women who were in many respects well in advance of their native male counterparts: Virginia Woolf and Anna Kavan in prose, Edith Sitwell in poetry, Elisabeth Lutyens in music and Barbara Hepworth in sculpture. Barbara Ker-Seymer is not remotely in this class. She took some attractive photo-portraits before the war in her studio above Asprey’s and that was it. After leaving St Paul’s Girls’ School, Barbara was soon drinking, drugging and dancing round town Not that Barbara cared. Though trained at the Chelsea School of Art, she had a deprecating attitude to her activity which was characteristic of English amateurism and

The woman who put the Spencer family on the map

The first woman to put the Spencer family on the map was not Diana, Princess of Wales, the youngest daughter of the 8th Earl Spencer, nor even Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the elder daughter of the 1st. Rather, it was their Tudor forebear Alice, Countess of Derby, the subject of this absorbing biography by Vanessa Wilkie. Born at Althorp – then a modest, two-storey red brick manor house – in May 1559, six months into the reign of Elizabeth I, Alice was the youngest daughter of Sir John Spencer, a prosperous sheep farmer and sometime sheriff of Northamptonshire, and his wife Katherine, née Kytson. At the age of about 20,

Fame came too late for Nick Drake

A friend suggested I might bring a feminine twist to this review by imagining what it felt like to be Nick Drake’s mother. It was a startling thought. When I read artists’ biographies I tend to stand with them eye-to-eye, rather than conjure the perspective of an older generation. But the further we are distanced in time and age (the singer-songwriter died in 1974, aged 26), the more the picture morphs. Just as we’re supposed to grow out of liking Shelley (I never did) or learn to swap Mozart for Bach, our view of someone who was both an undoubted genius and the definition of callow inevitably matures. The keeper

The philosophical puzzles of the British Socrates

Imagine your donkey and mine graze in the same field. One day I conceive a dislike for my donkey and shoot it: on examining the victim, though, I realise with horror I’ve shot your donkey. Or imagine a slightly different scenario. As before, I draw a bead, but just as I pull the trigger, my donkey – perhaps more invested in this vale of tears than yours – steps out of the firing line and I shoot your donkey. Now here’s the question. When, in either case, I turn up on your doorstep with the remains of your donkey, how should I frame my apology to you? In his 1956

Roger Deakin – at ease in the countryside as a poacher with deep pockets

Few authors have left such an immediate legacy as Roger Deakin. When he died of a sudden illness in 2007, aged 63, he had written just two books: Waterlog, which set off the wild swimming craze, and the even more influential Wildwood, which helped kickstart the publishing phenomenon of nature writing. Yet both books only really became well known after his death. During his lifetime he was, at best, a cult taste. When I approached the BBC 20 years ago with the idea that he should present a televisual version of Waterlog in which he swam ‘across’ England, through its ponds, lakes and rivers, I was told no one was

The problems of being a Bee Gee

For quite some time, the prospect of death has held a fresh terror. The British Heart Foundation’s step-by-step guide to cardiopulmonary resuscitation advises performing chest compressions ‘to the beat of “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees’. This means that the last sound some of us will ever hear is ‘Stayin’ Alive’, with our chests as the drums: Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’And we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive!Ah! ah! ah! ah!Stayin’ alive! Stayin’ alive! Despite their success, the Bee Gees have always been regarded as naff. They are to pop music what Fanny Cradock was to cookery or Julian Fellowes is to the world of letters. Bob Stanley is

Will we ever know the real George Orwell?

While George Orwell was staying with his family in Southwold during the 1930s, figuring out how to become a writer, the town pharmacist was busy shooting ciné footage. On the edge of a crowd watching a circus parade, he captured a tall man smoking at a street corner. It’s impossible to identify this brief glimpse as Orwell, but D.J. Taylor sees the self-conscious figure holding himself apart as a possible sighting. It doesn’t seem all that revealing, so why does it matter? It feels somehow symbolic of a wider effort to grasp something tangible and candid of a writer who can too readily be obscured by his own myth. This

Haunted by Old Russia: Rachmaninoff’s lonely final years

Ask a roomful of concert pianists to pick their graveyard moment in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909) and they’ll almost certainly point to five or so pages halfway through the last movement where an ant nest of piano notes infests a sparse orchestral threnody. When an elderly Vladimir Horowitz performed this passage – lank, dyed pageboy hair framing his Bela Lugosi face, hands darting over and under each other like butterflies – he looked more like a weaver at his loom than a virtuoso at his instrument. There are flickers of concentration, but the overall impression is one of extreme insouciance. ‘I am a Russian composer, and the land

From she-devil to heroine – Winnie Mandela’s surprising metamorphosis

Apartheid South Africa created many heroes and villains, and in the heat of battle for the soul of that country it was sometimes difficult to tell which was which. For decades, Nelson Mandela represented righteous liberation for a society enchained by the grim political philosophy of apartheid. Throughout most of this time, his wife Winnie embodied fearless defiance and radical resistance to the system, a charismatic beauty who howled with rage: according to Lord Hain, ‘a quasi-revolutionary to Mandela’s reformism’. A complex Shakespearian tale unfolds of two charismatic figures thrown together by apartheid Today, as South Africa lurches from one crisis to the next, the legacy of the Mandelas is

A born rebel: Lady Caroline Lamb scandalises society

At the beginning of her biography of the novelist, ‘fairy sprite’ and proto-feminist Lady Caroline Lamb, Lady Antonia Fraser hints that this may be her final book. Not for her a dramatic, Prospero-breaking-his-staff exit; instead, she writes mildly in the prologue that ‘this book… can also be regarded as the culmination of an exciting and fulfilling life spent studying history’. We must hope that Fraser continues to research and publish. Yet if this is to be her swansong, it is characteristically readable, accomplished and in places positively revolutionary. Glenarvon, Caro’s stinging attack on Byron, became a bestseller, even as it led to her banishment from society Lamb – or Caro

Jim Ede and the glories of Kettle’s Yard

Jim Ede started early. At the age of 12 he used £8 of his hard-won savings to buy a Queen Anne desk. No bicycle, air pistol or football for him: this solid piece of old furniture was the thing, the first step in a long life of acquiring objects that lived, breathed and spoke to him. To call him a compulsive collector is to understate the passion that over the years saw the desk followed by an avalanche of stuff, from porcelain and glasses to pebbles and feathers, textiles and above all paintings, drawings and sculpture. Each acquisition admired, loved, cherished and shared for its uniqueness – what Gerard Manley

What Zelensky has taken from his former TV career

Volodymyr Zelensky is one of the few leaders of modern times whose charisma, determination and sheer cojones can be said, without exaggeration, to have changed the course of history. In the first hours of the Russian invasion the US famously offered to evacuate him from Kyiv to a safer location, to which his response was (in spirit, if not in actual words): ‘I need ammo, not a ride.’ His determination to remain in the heart of his besieged capital seriously confounded Putin’s invasion plans, which were predicated on quickly toppling or murdering him. And Zelensky’s idea to film himself and his top advisers on his iPhone strolling down Kyiv’s Bankova

We love you, Uncle Xi!

In 2015, I had lunch with an old chum of Xi Jinping. He described how China’s most powerful leader since Chairman Mao was born into the Communist party’s ‘red aristocracy’ but had to toughen up fast when his father was jailed in the Cultural Revolution. The young Xi briefly became a street hoodlum who swore like a trooper, smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish. He survived by turning ‘redder than red’, climbing the party ladder from a branch secretary in a lowly village all the way up to the top job in Beijing. ‘I am fond of Xi, but he is isolated from his old friends and

Jan Morris’s ‘national treasure’ status is misleading

Almost two years after the death of Jan Morris, the jaunty travel writer and pioneer of modern gender transition, her first post-humous biography has arrived. (I follow Paul Clements in using the feminine pronoun throughout.) It is lively and well written, but it’s not the finished product. It lacks access to the private papers of its subject and her wife Elizabeth. That extra layer of insight into a fascinating but elusive personality must doubtless await the authorised life by Sara Wheeler. In the meantime, Clements deserves plaudits. He has worked his personal knowledge and existing sources well. We learn more than before about Morris’s modest if comfortable upbringing, with Welshness

The mad, bad and dangerous theories of Thomas Henry Huxley

Racism lies at the heart of the Victorian rewrite of the creation myth. What happened in prehistory, according to Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s representative on Earth, was that while Homo sapiens emerged from its primitive state among the other apes and lemurs, some – Europeans – developed at a faster rate. Humankind had evolved from a ‘hairy, tailed quadruped’, which was itself ‘probably derived from an ancient marsupial animal’ (Darwin). But once the human species emerged, ‘men differ more widely from one another than they do from the apes’. This ineluctably leads to the conclusion that there is as much difference, perhaps more, between the higher type of human being

The lonely passions of Emily Hale and Mary Trevelyan

This year marks the centenary of the publication of The Waste Land, the poem that made T.S. Eliot famous. His story is familiar and yet still surprising. What is well known: Ezra Pound whipped The Waste Land into shape, it was published in The Dial and then The Criterion, and it was quickly recognised as a poem of great importance. Eliot emerged as the poet of his age and his views on the ‘impersonality’ of poetry would dominate the next several decades of poetry and criticism. What is less well known is how Eliot’s work was shaped and influenced by a few key women. This dynamic is what Lyndall Gordon’s