Thursday, 30 June 2011

A Case of Mistaken Identity?

In the glitzy world of Hollywood, the oft-used phrase, ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’, has become, in the words of Jane Austen, a truth universally acknowledged. Indeed, it is a slogan which has become the cornerstone upon which the career of many a vacuous starlet has been built.

But does the same apply to the more decorous world of art? To answer this question, we should look to respected London auction house, Sotheby’s, which has recently had some cause to ponder the relative merits of the statement, after becoming embroiled in an unholy row with dealer Philip Mould.

The trouble began last October, when Sotheby’s were commissioned to oversee an attic sale at Chatsworth House, the ancestral seat of the Duke of Devonshire.
Among the thousands of lots up for auction was a painting of an unknown woman by an anonymous 17th century Flemish artist. After consulting with a number of experts in the field, the painting, an 18in x 13in oil on canvas, was listed in the Sotheby’s catalogue as ‘from the circle of Rubens’, art-speak for ‘heavily influenced by Rubens’. Philip Mould, however, begged to differ. After snapping up the artwork for £10,000, Mould revealed that his firmly-held belief that it was in fact by the Flemish master, Anthony Van Dyck. Suddenly, the sedate world of art dealership became decidedly more animated ….

Mould, who has made quite a name for himself by spotting unattributed Van Dycks, has had the painting cleaned, and the varnish overlay removed. He is, he says, more than ever convinced that his new acquisition is a Van Dyck, a belief corroborated by at least one respected Van Dyck expert. With their hard-won reputation coming under fire, Sotheby’s were forced to take the unusual step of releasing a statement in defence of their attribution. The statement read:
"Six out of seven of the world's leading specialists in this field whom Sotheby's has consulted also categorically reject the attribution to Van Dyck (the only one supporting the Van Dyck attribution being the same specialist Philip Mould consulted)."

Before and after cleaning
Debate surrounding the attribution of artworks to particular artists has always been a notoriously contentious issue. With the development of new technologies to aid in the attribution process, the landscape is constantly changing, forcing experts to continually re-evaluate conventional thinking. However, despite the growing knowledge in the area, this particular ascription continues to be contested. Neither party has been able to back up their attribution definitively. It looks like this is one controversy that is set to rumble on for quite some time.

One thing is for sure, the publicity certainly hasn’t hurt Philip Mould or his gallery. His discovery is now valued at £85,000, and his exhibition, Finding Van Dyck, which showcases this and his other Van Dyck discoveries is proving very popular …

Finding Van Dyck is currently showing at Mould’s Dover Street gallery. Until July 13.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Talk of the Town - Ardal O'Hanlon

I know I’m probably a little late to the party on this one (The Talk of the Town was published in 1998), so please forgive the tardiness of this review.

I have, in fact, been trying to track this book down for quite some time. Exhaustive searches of London’s book stores and Amazon had proved fruitless, and I was beginning to despair of ever getting my hands on it, when it suddenly appeared before my eyes, like a divine apparition, on a second-hand book table in the market under Waterloo Bridge … and at the bargain-basement price of £3 – result!

So, was this debut offering by Irish comedian, Ardal O’Hanlon, worth the wait (and the endless trudging around innumerable Waterstones stores)? The short answer is yes, but with one important qualification … if you are expecting this book to be reminiscent of O’Hanlon’s most famous character, the thick-as-two-bricks Fr Dougal McGuire of Father Ted fame, you will be sorely disappointed.

Ardal O'Hanlon
Because The Talk of the Town is as far removed from the side-splitting comedy of Father Ted as it can possibly get.  It is the story of Patrick, a young man from a small town in Ireland, who is struggling to come to terms with the death of his idolised father and the onset of adulthood. Told from the point of view of the rather unlikeable protagonist, and occasionally interspersed with diary entries from Francesca, his indifferent but well-meaning girlfriend, The Talk of the Town chronicles Patrick’s startling descent from promising young teenager into a world of disillusionment and inertia. As all his friends appear to be emerging from their adolescent years relatively unscathed, Patrick is stuck in a quagmire of self-doubt and resentment. Unwilling or unable to take control of his life, Patrick succumbs to alcohol and violence as a way of venting his deep-seated frustrations. As this dark and disturbing tale hurtles inexorably to his horrifying climax, the reader is left contemplating the fine line between sanity and madness … and how easily a life be veered off-course.

The novel, however, is not without its faults. The plot is rather thin in places and, if it wasn’t for Francesca’s occasional diary entries to alleviate the intensity, the narrative would be a difficult and unrelentingly miserable read. The book is also jam-packed with colloquialisms - which is fine if you are in fact Irish like me, but could be quite baffling for the non-native reader!

In short, Roddy Doyle it ain’t, but well worth a read nonetheless.


Lost Library Book Returned … 122 years late!

Earlier this month, librarians in Australia were astounded when a rare book by Charles Darwin was returned, almost a century-and-a-quarter after its due date.

The first edition copy of Insectivorous Plants was borrowed from the lending library at Camden School of Arts on the outskirts of Sydney in 1889.

The book was found among the collection of retired vet, Ron Hyne, which had recently been donated to the University of Sydney. The university forwarded the book to the Camden library after noticing the borrowing stamp on the inside cover.

Spokesperson for Camden Council, Linda Campbell, said that they were delighted to have the book back in their possession. "It's been on a bit of a journey as far as we can tell," she said. "Where it's been we don't know... maybe down the back of a couch."

Hyne, for his part, has no idea how he came to be in possession of the book, but suspects he received it sometime during the 1950s as a gift from a colleague. He must surely have been relieved to hear that the library has generously agreed to waive the late fee … estimated to be around $35,000!

Interestingly, the lackadaisical borrower may have done the library a favour. Had the book been returned in a timely manner, it is likely that it would have been culled from the library’s collection when it became unpopular with readers.

The library has now made the book available for public viewing … but, perhaps unsurprisingly, it will no longer be available on loan.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

The Sale of The Century

Today, in an auction house somewhere in Beverly Hills, an astonishing collection of Hollywood fashion memorabilia will go under the hammer.

The sale, billed as the most significant of its kind since the liquidation of the MGM and Fox studios in the 1970s, has been eagerly anticipated by fashion and movie collectors in the States, and indeed the world over.

With over 600 lots, the auction will include such iconic pieces as th gown worn by Audrey Hepburn in the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady and the headdress worn by the recently deceased Dame Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra.

But the star of the show is undoubtedly the white pleated halter-neck dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in the infamous scene over a subway vent in The Seven Year Itch. However, if you’d like to get your hands on this particular item, be prepared to dig deep; it is expected to go for at least $1million.

The collection’s owner, actress and Hollywood icon Debbie Reynolds, is said to be heartbroken by the prospect of losing who prized collection, but has admitted that, having failed to raise the necessary funding to put them into a museum, the sale is a necessary one.

In total, the auction is expected to raise a staggering $10million.

Update:  Raising a staggering $22.8 million, the auction has exceeded all expectations.  Unsurprisingly, the Monroe dress generated a lot of interest, and sold for $4.6million, while the more demure 'Ascot' outfit worn by Audrey Hepburn went for $3.7million!

Friday, 17 June 2011

Culture Vulture - Did you know ...

... that Leonardo da Vinci spent 12 years painting Mona Lisa's lips?

... that in 1961, Henri Matisse's painting Le Bateau hung upsidedown in Museum of Modern Art in New York for 46 days before anyone (including the 116,000 visitors) noticed the error?

Le Bateau

... that the French artist Paul Gauguin held down jobs as an investment banker and a labourer on the Panama Canal before trying his hand at painting?

Gauguin Self Portrait

... that Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting, Red Vineyard at Arles, during his lifetime?  He died by his own hand, a pauper and quite mad.

Red Vineyard at Arles

... that Leonardo da Vinci invented the scissors?

... that Degas was so fascinated by ballerinas that he produced over 1,500 paintings and drawings of ballet dancers during his career?

Degas's Ballerinas

... that the Statue of Liberty is the world's largest hammered copper statue?

... that Pablo Picasso was drawing before he could talk?  When he did utter his first word, it was the Spanish word for pencil

Pablo Picasso Self Portrait

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Edith Piaf's Letters

This year marks the 48th anniversary of Edith Piaf’s death from cancer at the age of just 47. It seems quite incredible that the French chanteuse has now been dead for longer than she lived. And yet, as the years roll relentlessly by, our enduring fascination with Edith Piaf shows no signs of abating.

Piaf was no stranger to headlines during her lifetime. Her genuine rags-to-riches story, combined with her very public battles against addiction and depression provided a rich source of fodder for the tabloids and gossip columnists of the day. Her endless stream of doomed love affairs also did nothing to alleviate the burden of public interest in her private life. And now, almost half a century after her death, this tragic songbird, famous for singing 'Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien' is once again garnering attention for all the wrong reasons.

The cause of this renewed interest in Piaf is the recent publication of a cache of over fifty love letters written to her married lover, Louis Gerardin, over the course of a ten-month affair from 1951 – 1952. These letters, which first came to the public’s attention in 2009 when they were sold by Christie’s in Paris for €67,000, have now been collated into a book called Mon Amour Blue (My Blue Love).

Giving unparalleled insight into the mind of this passionate, and often overbearing woman, the letters reveal a yearning to love and be loved. Consumed by romantic fantasies, she declares herself willing to abandon her singing career (and her alcohol addiction!), if only her lover would leave his wife and family.
"I made an oath in Church that if you came I would never touch another glass of alcohol in my life," she writes, adding that she would become a "real and docile woman" for him.
She seems intent on devoting herself completely to Gerardin, mind, body and soul.
"I want to completely better myself, I want to be worthy of you, you must help me to transform, you will be my little professor, dear, and I will blindly listen to you like a master that I adore."
Coming just two years after the true love of her life, the boxer Marcel Cerdan, died in a plane crash, one can only assume that this desperate need to be loved completely and unconditionally is in some way a reaction to the trauma of Cerdan’s untimely death.

Unfortunately, her fervent letters did not have the desired effect. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the obsessive nature of her sentiments only succeeded in scaring her lover away. It has been reported that Gerardin, a world-champion cyclist, declared that:
 "Forty-eight hours with Piaf are more tiring than a lap in the Tour de France".
The letters, which became increasingly desperate in the face of Gerardin’s reticence to commit to her, culminate in Piaf writing to abruptly end their affair. However, she wasn’t alone for long. By the time Gerardin received the letter, his erstwhile paramour had married a French singer called Jacques Pills, a union which was to end in divorce four years later.

Regrets? Well, perhaps when all was said and done, she did have a few …

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

On This Day ... Samuel Pepys & The Great Plague

Samuel Pepys, the noted 17th century diarist, is perhaps most famous for his eyewitness accounts of the The Great Fire which swept through London in 1666.  But this was far from the only significant event recorded by him during this tumultuous period in the city's history. 

Although he kept a diary for only nine years (from 1660 to 1669, when he was forced to abandon it due to blindness), Pepys' writings have become an invalubale source of information for historians.  Aside from his accounts of the devastating Great Fire, his diaries have also provided commentaries on the Restoration, the Second Anglo-Dutch War and, of course, the Great Plague.

It was on this day, June 7th, in 1665, when Pepys made one of his first references to this terrible disease, which would go on the wreak havoc on the beleagured city.  He wrote:
“This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a read cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord Have Mercy Upon Us’ writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind . . . that I ever saw."
As the summer wore on, his accounts became ever more harrowing.  On August 12th, he wrote:
“The people die so, that it now seems they are willing to carry the dead to be buried by daylight, the nights not being long enough to do it."
Pepys continued to chronicle the progress of the plague and, as his diary entry for August 22nd suggests, in their efforts to deal with the burgeoning number of dead bodies, the authorities had not the time nor the resources to bestow on the deceased any dignity in death.
“I went on a walk to Greenwich, on my way seeing a coffin with a dead body in it, dead of plague. It lay in an open yard . . . It was carried there last night, and the parish has not told anybody to bury it. This disease makes us more cruel to one another than we are to dogs.”
Pepys' motivation for keeping such detailed records of these traumatic events is unclear.  He certainly didn't write them for posterity; having written most of his entries in code, it is clear he never intended them to be published.  One wonders what he would have made of the fact that, over 400 years later, his scribblings are regarded by many to be the definitive authority on one of the most turbulent decades in London's long and varied history.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Love Chocolate?

Then why not read about the history of this gloriously seductive creation on the new Story of Food page (opposite)?

The next instalment, The Story of Coca Cola, is coming soon.

Stay tuned!