‘You can stare at a cow you will soon eat’: The Newt, Hadspen, reviewed

The Newt is an idealised country house in Somerset which won the World’s Best Boutique Hotel award last year. It is small, beautiful and mind-meltingly expensive, even for the Bruton Triangle and its mooing art galleries. Poor Somerset! It never wanted to be monied enough to have a triangle, but the rich make their own mythology. Since they paint every-thing grey – and now green, I learn at the Newt – they need it. A triangle fills the day. The Newt is for people who think that Babington House is stupid (it is) and though the Newt has its own issues – like the King, its taste is almost too

‘Is it France? I don’t know’: Hôtel de Crillon, Paris, reviewed

Hôtel de Crillon sits on the Place de la Concorde, a vast square renamed for bloodshed, then the lack of it – it was the Place de la Révolution, with knitting and bouncing heads. Now it is placid, and the Crillon is the most placid thing in it. No one does grand hotels like the French, except perhaps the Swiss, who have nothing better to do. Hôtel de Crillon was one of twin palaces commissioned by Louis XV before the French butchered his grandson and his wife outside them: it looks like Buckingham Palace but prettier and with possible PTSD. It has been a hotel for 115 years and next

‘I pity MPs more than ever’: the Cinnamon Club, reviewed

The Cinnamon Club appears on lists of MPs favourite restaurants: if they can still eat this late into a parliament. It lives in the old Westminster Library on Great Smith Street, a curiously bloodless part of London, and an irresistible metaphor wherever you are. When once you ate knowledge, you now eat flesh, but only if you can afford it. Now there is the Charing Cross Library, which lives next to the Garrick Theatre, and looks curiously oppressed. Perhaps soon it will be a falafel shack and knows it. There is also the Central Reference Library, which could be a KFC, and soon will be. Public spaces are shrinking. They

The summer I dwelt in marble halls

The discovery of a cache of long-lost love letters might be an over-familiar inspiration for a memoir, risking a bit of a dusty lane indulgence – a charming, nostalgic featherbed flop into a past romance. But although the events described by this delightful nonagenarian first-time author took place three-quarters of a century ago, there is nothing sepia-flattened about Gill Johnson’s writing. This is a book which shimmers with remarkable recall as the author returns us to the post-war vibrancy of Venice and the dazzling inhabitants who transformed her young life. The youngest of four children, Gill reached adulthood in Blitz-scarred, rationed 1950s London. She shared a depressing, claustrophobic Westminster flat

‘The lasagne is perfect’: Hotel La Calcina, Venice, reviewed

Pensione La Calcina is one of John Ruskin’s houses in Venice. He stayed here in 1877, after completing The Stones of Venice and going mad, and there is a plaque for him on the wall: a stone of his own. It is next to the Swiss consulate on the Zattere, but never mind them. I think the Zattere is for people who have tired of Venice. It has a view to the Giudeccacanal, and the waterbus to the airport: to the exit. You can breathe here. I am staying in San Marco, where I can’t. My son falls from a water gate into a canal, and Italian grandmothers tut at

Always carry a little book with you, and preserve it with great care, said Leonardo da Vinci

In 1299, Amatino Manucci, a Florentine helping to run a merchant’s business in Provence, kept at least seven ledgers and notebooks, each serving a specific purpose. One covered the firm’s trade in wool and cloth, another in wheat, barley and other victuals, and so on. It wasn’t just figures Manucci worked with. It was also financial concepts, quite advanced by the standards of that time: accounting entities and periods, profit and depreciation – notions that heralded the invention of accounting as we know it. ‘If you’ve ever tapped numbers into an Excel grid,’ Roland Allen writes in his engaging popular history, ‘you have Manucci and his contemporaries to thank –

Travels in Italy with the teenage Mozart

Between the ages of 13 and 17, Mozart made three trips to Italy, spending some two-and- a-half years in ‘the country at the heart of the opera world’. He would never return as an adult. His mature Italian operas – The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, La Clemenza di Tito – can be traced directly back to these formative teenage encounters and experiences in Bologna, Venice, Rome, Florence and Naples. So argues Jane Glover in Mozart in Italy. A follow-up to 2005’s Mozart’s Women, the book is a lively account of journeys which the composer shared (mostly) with his father Leopold. What dominates initially is the business

Bittersweet memories: Ti Amo, by Hanne Ørstavik, reviewed

This is a deceptively slim novel. Its 96 pages contain multitudes: two lives, past and present, seamlessly interwoven. The narrator, a Norwegian novelist, and her Italian husband live in Milan. ‘Ti amo,’ they frequently tell each other. Easier to say ‘I love you’, than for him to say he’s dying, and her to say she doesn’t know what she’ll do without him. When did it all start, she wonders. ‘When did you actually become ill?’ We’re encouraged these days to view everything as a journey, including marriage, and theirs has been a marriage of many journeys, emotional and geographical: literary festivals, seminars, conferences, interspersed with private time – dinners in

The jewel-bright, mesmerisingly detailed pictures by Raqib Shaw are a revelation

Describing the Venice Biennale, like pinning down the city itself, is a practical impossibility. There is just too much of it, tucked away, scattered throughout the maze of alleyways and canals. And the art is no longer confined to the Biennale’s national pavilions in the gardens. It has spread, via dozens of tagalong shows cashing in on the presence of the global art world, to a motley array of disused palaces, warehouses, churches, at least one shop and a hidden garden loggia. A good way to sample it is just to follow your fancy: step through an ancient doorway and find out what is on the other side. That’s how

Stewart Brand: man of ideas and infuriating contrarian

In his 2005 book What The Dormouse Said John Markoff traced the roots of the personal computer industry to the counterculture of the 1960s – a tale that owed as much to Jefferson Airplane as Jeffersonian ingenuity. Constantly popping up in that narrative is the adopted Californian Stewart Brand. Markoff wrote of his ‘Zelig-like penchant’ for being present at turning points in the story. Whole Earth, viewed one way, is an extended apology for that epithet. ‘The Zelig reference,’ Markoff says now, ‘is the wrong way to describe him, for there has been a consistent through line that has connected his various campaigns, crusades and inquiries over more than six

Character is king in the latest crime fiction

Thriller writers are hard pressed to stand out in what’s become a very crowded field. As a result, from Cardiff to Kansas we meet every conceivable kind of detective: if one walks with a telltale limp, another has no legs at all. Even the requirements of diversity can’t disguise the desperation of the search for distinctive heroes, or how variety itself has become a convention. Simon Mason’s A Killing in November (Quercus, £14.99) begins with more than a nod to thriller traditions. It’s set in the fictional Oxford college of St Barnabas, with a grumpy provost wooing a corrupt Middle Eastern potentate, a college servant with a hidden agenda and,

Renaissance radical: Carlo Crivelli – Shadows on the Sky at Ikon Gallery reviewed

‘Camp,’ wrote Susan Sontag, ‘is the paintings of Carlo Crivelli, with their real jewels and trompe-l’oeil insects and cracks in the masonry.’ She didn’t even mention the renaissance painter’s curious cucumber fetish. Nor the unwittingly comedic homoeroticism of his portrait of Saint Roch, one stocking rolled down coquettishly to reveal a decorous inner-thigh wound. Nor the extraordinarily ugly baby Jesus clutching an apple as big as his head while his mother, understandably, averts her eyes. ‘Camp is playful, anti-serious,’ argued Sontag. Sontag wasn’t alone in not taking Crivelli (c.1430–95) seriously. Giorgio Vasari, who scorned the illusionism that some have taken to be Crivelli’s USP, erased him from his art history.

Jan Morris’s last book is a vade mecum to treasure

Jan Morris, in all her incarnations, was always able to evoke a place and a moment like no other. As James Morris, the only journalist to cover the first successful ascent of Everest in 1953, he described Edmund Hillary returning from the summit as huge and cheerful, his movement not so much graceful as unshakably assured, his energy almost demonic… It was a moment so thrilling, so vibrant, that hot tears sprang to the eyes of most of us. Morris, who died last year, was married to Elizabeth Tuckniss for 71 years and had five children, one of whom died in infancy. She transitioned to live as a woman in

Albrecht Dürer was a 16th-century Andy Warhol

On 6 January 1506, Albrecht Dürer wrote from Venice to his friend Willibald Pirckheimer, who was at home in Nuremberg. The artist had already been in the city for a little while, and like many people who visit Venice he had spent a good deal of time shopping. Pirckheimer had asked him to buy some jewellery for him, ‘a few pearls and precious stones’, and the artist had been looking out for something suitable. There were, however, difficulties. For one thing, he says: ‘I can find nothing good enough or worth the money; everything is snapped up by the Germans.’ For another, Dürer complained, there were a lot of swindlers

Why there’s never been a better time to see Venice

You’re never going to see Venice quite like this again. Usually swarming with tourists – not to mention the enormous cruise ships that dock in its waters ­– the city has been given a serious breather by the coronavirus pandemic. Those lengthy queues to get into its most famous hotspots have disappeared; the picturesque back streets lie empty and a dramatic fall in water traffic has seen the sediment in its 150 canals settle, allowing their vibrant colour to return. La Serenissima – much to many of the locals’ relief – has become serene once more. Where to stay Belmond Hotel Cipriani In a city where five-star luxury errs towards

Why I will miss our mighty cooling towers – and I suspect I am not alone

One afternoon earlier this summer we drove through Rugeley in Staffordshire. There, looming above the A51, were the cooling towers of the power station: a pinkish red, resembling terracotta, with curving convex sides, like modernist vases on a pharaonic scale. At 385 feet high, they were a little taller than the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. We remarked on how surprisingly good they looked as we passed them on 4 June, en route to a spot in the Staffordshire countryside where we were going to stay. On 6 June there was a distant rumble like thunder but we thought little of it. However, that evening when we glanced at the

Wine by the jug in Venetian Venice

We were discussing travel, that forbidden delight now tantalisingly close. Where would be our first destination? Forswearing originality, I chose Venice. Among the world’s greatest paintings, one in particular does not merely come to mind. It fills the mind. I have never been in the Serenissima for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, probably just as well. In mid-August, there are bound to be pedestrian traffic jams all the way from the Piazza to the Rialto. But it is possible to imagine the event. Go to Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Use your inner eye to fill the church with the entire nobility of Venice, festooned with gold

Feasting on memories of Venice

Dining in catastrophe used to be more interesting: but we must be fair. It was a smaller (and wetter) catastrophe: the Acqua Alta in Venice. That is when the sea rises and you put bin bags on your legs; and people push you off the duckboards while other people waltz in the water, sweetly and poorly; and inexperienced tourists turn to hotel managers and say, with loss in their eyes: when can we go outside without bin bags on our legs? The experienced hotel manager will reply, with mirrored grief: ‘Madam, it is the sea [and what do you want me to do about it, you imbecile]?’ After paddling in

Arthur Jeffress: bright young person of the post-war art scene

The name Arthur Jeffress may not conjure many associations for those not familiar with the London post-war art world, but this wayward, flamboyant, controversial connoisseur and patron who left much of his ‘small but subversive’ collection to the Tate and the Southampton Art Gallery after his death in 1961 certainly deserves his footnote in history. ‘Small but subversive’ could describe the man as well as his collection: his fabulous wealth, inherited from Virginian tobacco plantation-owning ancestry, coupled with his rampant homosexuality, shaped a life of compulsive and conspicuous extravagance, in which art and sex vied with one another for supremacy against the backdrop of Belgravia and a palazzo just off

Martin Gayford visits the greatest one-artist show on Earth

For a good deal of this autumn, I was living in Venice. This wasn’t exactly a holiday, I’d like to point out, but a suitable place to work while beginning a new book. The result was, though, that week after week, when I had finished writing, I went for a stroll around the neighbourhood, Dorsoduro, which very quickly came to feel like home. One thing I realised as I wandered around, between buying the groceries and admiring the view, was just how crammed the city was with works by Tintoretto. There must have been well over 70 within a few minutes of the apartment where I was staying. There are