Matthew Dennison

Matthew Dennison is the author of Over the Hills and Far Away: The Life of Beatrix Potter as well as four royal biographies.

Why are all female teachers called Miss?

You could be forgiven for thinking you’d inadvertently turned back the clock. Cross the threshold into the majority of British schools and what appears to confront you is a workforce of unmarried women. Surely it’s 1904 not 2024, and teaching is still a spinster’s business? For, in the average 21st-century school, each and every woman

Why it’s time to bring back wassailing

Before the Industrial Revolution shrank Christmas celebrations to two days, many workers across rural England might have spared a minute or two over Christmastide to bring out the family wassail bowl. Wassailing – sometimes in houses, sometimes in apple orchards – was a ceremonial toast to the health of friends, family and neighbours, or a

Don’t cancel Beatrix Potter

I spoke too soon. Beatrix Potter, I suggested in an afterword to my 2016 biography of the author and illustrator, had escaped the distortions of sexual and racial revisionism that now blight so many eminent and long-dead British writers. But no longer. Last week a specialist in postcolonial literature at a northern university accused Potter

In praise of minor royals

On a scaffold hung with black cloth, on a freezing January day in 1649, the instinct for sumptuousness died in these islands. It was killed alongside Charles I, kingly excess and belief in divine right and, with intermittent exceptions, has never recovered. And so when, time and again since September, we’ve heard about our new

The road to independence

Alone with her father’s dead body, Olive Piper says, ‘I don’t know anything, except what I feel, and how can anyone know more?’ In Susan Hill’s new novel, Olive’s acceptance of the primacy of feeling represents a coming of age. Her maturity is achieved at a cost. As in a number of her recent novels

Wings of desire

Maria Sibylla Merian was a game old bird of entrepreneurial bent, with an overwhelming obsession with insects. Born in Frankfurt in 1647, she sacrificed her health and financial stability in pursuit of her passion. It carried her halfway across the globe and earned her lasting renown among a handful of cognoscenti. Merian was 15 when

The art of Beatrix Potter

‘I will do something sooner or later,’ wrote Beatrix Potter in the secret diary she kept in a private code. It was March 1883 and 16-year-old Potter, still mostly confined to the nursery of her parents’ house in South Kensington, had made a second visit to the Winter Exhibition of old masters at the Royal

Osbert Lancaster: a national treasure rediscovered

True to his saw that ours is ‘a land of rugged individualists’, Osbert Lancaster, in his self-appointed role of popular architectural historian, presented the 1,000-year history of Britain’s built environment from a resolutely personal perspective. Like the majority of his generation — Lancaster was born in 1908 and published Pillar to Post in 1938, following

Portrait or landscape?

One of the default settings of garden journalists is the adjective ‘painterly’ — applied to careful colour harmonies within a border (or equally considered clashes) and long, swooping vistas. It evokes soft sfumato smudges of pink and green, much as I imagine the interior of the late Queen Mother’s wardrobe must have looked. But it’s

It takes a thief…

In the words of one of his contemporaries ‘a man of down look, lean-faced and full of pock holes’, the 17th-century ne’er-do-well Thomas Blood sounds an unattractive proposition. His latest biographer, Robert Hutchinson, works hard to imbue him with the pantomime glamour of a lovable rogue. Hutchinson roots Blood’s rackety life firmly within the context

Wellington’s PR machine

The history of portraiture is festooned with images of sitters overwhelmed by dress, setting and the accoutrements of worldly success. Vanity, complacency and, frequently, insecurity have led men and women to commission or sit for likenesses in which an extra swag of braid, another row of pearls, flounce of silk or plume topples the finished

Snow – art’s biggest challenge

In owning a flock of artificial sheep, Joseph Farquharson must have been unusual among Highland lairds a century ago. His Aberdeenshire estate covered 20,000 acres — surely enough to support the modest local ovine needs. But Farquharson was a painter, the fake sheep artist’s models. For cleanliness and biddability, few grazing ewes can match a

You’ll never look at dried pasta in the same way again

A calculated ordinariness unites the protagonists in Graham Swift’s new collection of short stories. In each of these mini fictions, as in his novels, Swift revisits his conceit of the narrator as man (or woman) on the Clapham omnibus. Invariably he endows these blank ciphers with aspects of the extraordinary — percipience, insight or understanding

Margaret Drabble tries to lose the plot

Halfway through her new novel, Margaret Drabble tells us of Anna, the pure gold baby of the title, ‘There was no story to her life, no plot.’ That statement is partly true. It is also a challenge, a gauntlet cast by this very knowing writer at the reader’s feet; in terms of Drabble’s narrative, it