Stories of the Sussex Downs

This amazing book is itself a little like a flint, a misshapen stone egg of the Sussex Downs. It resists the reader at first, coated in the calcite rind of the author’s slow, scholarly journey, missteps and all. But when you persist, breaking the book’s spine or, as it were, knapping the flinty nodule, you find treasure within. Alexandra Harris quotes the painter Paul Nash writing in 1937: ‘If I broke all the shells of all my wild stones, I should find that precious yolk which is like precious stones, the black core of the flint.’ From Nash, it’s a hop and a skip to Henry Vaughan, the metaphysical poet

I was dreading this show – how wrong could I be: Entangled Pasts, at the Royal Academy, reviewed

In the wake of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s exhibition Black Atlantic about its founder’s ties to the slave trade comes the Royal Academy’s Entangled Pasts, less of a mea culpa than an examination of conscience by an institution which, although hailed by its first president Sir Joshua Reynolds as an ‘ornament’ of Empire, was innocent of direct links to slavery. The exhibition is less of a mea culpa than an examination of conscience I confess that I was rather dreading this show, which sounded from the pre-publicity like a hollow exercise in Britannia-Rules-the-Waves breast-beating, but from the moment I stepped into the courtyard and saw the posturing Sir Joshua on his

Watcher of the skies: John Constable, painter and meteorologist

A surprising amount of classic painting turns out to have specific, often literary meaning, even in genres which tend to strike us as innocent observations of reality. Dutch flower paintings, for instance, might be celebrations of wealth or contemplations of mortality; still lifes were seldom just renderings of a few bits of fruit and vegetables lying around on the kitchen table; and landscapes were hardly ever merely depictions of handsome tracts of land, whether by Rembrandt or Richard Wilson. John Constable’s work, which rarely emphasises explicit significance, was something new. There were occasional ventures into metaphor and symbolism, such as the late painting ‘Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua

My plan for the Turner Contemporary

I learnt a horrible new word during the holidays: Twixmas. It refers to the 27-30 December period and has its roots in the word ‘betwixt’, although why anyone would refer to those dates as ‘betwixt’ Christmas and New Year rather than ‘between’ is beyond me. Caroline, who now works in travel, introduced me to it and the reason it came up is that she booked an Airbnb in Margate for precisely those dates. This was to be our Twixmas holiday. Not ideal because there were QPR games on the 27th and the 30th, one of them in Bristol, but by criss-crossing the country in our VW seven-seater I made it

Tsunami of piffle: Rockets and Blue Lights at the Dorfman Theatre reviewed

Deep breath. Here goes. Winsome Pinnock’s new play about Turner opens with one of the most confusing and illogical scenes you’re ever likely to see. A teacher on a school trip is showing her pupils a Turner painting displayed in a gallery housed inside a ship donated by the producers of a film starring a famous actress, Lou, who happens to be on board wearing a sumptuous outfit for an awards ceremony, which she plans to avoid for fear that a coveted prize will be handed to a rival. Lou invites the school teacher to an after party that is scheduled to start when the awards ceremony ends. She then

From Middlemarch to Mickey Mouse: a short history of The Spectator’s books and arts pages

The old masters: how well they understood. John Betjeman’s architecture column ran for just over three years in the mid-1950s. Yet during that short run he experienced the moment that comes, sooner or later, to every regular writer in The Spectator’s arts pages. ‘It is maddening the way people corner one and make one discuss politics at the moment,’ he wrote on 23 November 1956, clearly as bored of the Suez crisis as the rest of us were, until recently, by Brexit: Because I write in this paper, people assume that I share its Editor’s views about Suez… But I don’t know what the views of this paper about Suez