Friday, 10 February 2012

The Perfect Cure for Dickens Fatigue

So far, 2012 has been a big year for fans of Charles Dickens. Barely six weeks into the great author’s bicentennial year and we have already been treated to a dizzying array of TV and radio adaptations of his works, not to mention innumerable newspaper and magazine articles analyzing everything from his characters and plots to his enduring influence in our 21st century world.

In fact, so saturated has the media become with all things Dickensian, you would, dear reader, be forgiven for feeling just a little bit tired of it all. (Personally, I’m expecting the phrase ‘Dickens fatigue’ to enter the OED any day now.)

But, before you take the rash step of swearing off Charles-bloody-Dickens for the sake of your mental health, I urge you to pick up a copy of Lynn Shepherd’s wonderful new book, Tom-All-Alone’s – because if you are indeed suffering from this particular literary malaise, Tom-All-Alone’s provides the perfect antidote by breathing new life into one of Dickens' most famous novels.

Set in 1850, Tom-All-Alone’s is a Victorian murder mystery which cleverly uses many of the characters and locations from the classic Bleak House and weaves them into an entirely new, but equally compelling, story. However, unlike Bleak House, Tom-All-Alone’s is narrated by a 21st century observer – a device which allows the author to expose many of the darker realities of Victorian London, realities Dickens could only hint at or, indeed, ignore altogether.

And Lynn Shepherd certainly doesn’t shy away from the task in hand. She is unflinching in her re-creation of the seedy, squalid and the downright disgusting underbelly of mid-19th century London. Nothing is off limits in this book, whether it be child prostitution, gruesome Ripper-style murders, or nauseating descriptions of the goings-on in the infamous Bermondsey tanneries. However, all this only serves to bring the slums of Victorian London authentically and vividly to life, and the reader is left under no illusions as to what life was really like for many Londoners forced to eek out an existence in such wretched conditions.

Charles Dickens
If you are not familiar with Bleak House, fear not –a prior knowledge of the Dickens masterpiece is certainly not a prerequisite for the enjoyment of this book. In fact, with its intricately-woven plot, meticulously researched historical detail and wonderful writing, Tom-All-Alone’s doesn’t need the Dickens connection to make this a thoroughly good book – as a stand-alone story, it will appeal to anyone who enjoys a classic Victorian murder mystery.

A must-read!

Tom-All-Alone's by Lynn Shepherd is published in the UK by Corsair.  It will be released in the US under the title The Solitary House on May 1st.  For more information, including a great video introduction by the author, go to

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Art World's Best Kept Secret

This weekend, fine art dealers throughout the globe were stunned by reports that the most significant art sale the world has ever seen had taken place in secret early in 2011, the details of which have just been released.

The painting in question is the much-sought-after Card Players (or Les Joueurs des Cartes) by the French post-impressionist painter, Paul C├ęzanne, which had previously been in the possession of the Greek shipping magnate, George Embiricos. And the buyer? Why, none other than the seriously minted Qatari royal family.

George Embiricos
The very fact that the transaction has been kept under wraps for so long is astonishing. Since his death early last year, there has been intense interest in Embiricos’ extensive art collection - hardly surprising considering the tycoon had jealously guarded his paintings for many years, repeatedly refusing requests to lend them to some of the world’s leading art galleries and museums (to the extent that much of his collection had not been seen by the public in decades). Given this level of attention, it was simply inconceivable to many that a deal of this magnitude could be completed without a hint leaking to the press.

But, if the level of secrecy which surrounded the transaction had surprised the art market cognoscenti, they were to be confounded further by the revelation that the painting had changed hands for a staggering $250 million (£160 million). This huge price tag makes Card Players the most expensive painting ever sold – easily overtaking the previous record (a Jackson Pollack which had been bought by a Mexican financier for $140 million or £90 million).

Rothko's White Centre
Indeed, this is not the first time Qatar’s ruling family have parted with extravagant sums for works of art – they have recently bought Rothko’s White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) for $73 million and a pill cabinet by Damian Hirst for $20 million.

All this has led to accusations that the Qatari royal family’s immense purchasing power is over-inflating prices in the fine art market, which, thanks to a scarcity of great works in private hands, is already ridiculously expensive.

And while there is some veracity in such sentiments, it should be noted that, unlike the George Embiricoses of the world, the Qataris intend to put their acquisitions on display to the public in Doha. To my mind, that is infinitely more preferable to having a treasure such as Card Players languishing forlornly, unseen and unappreciated, in some dusty private collection far away from an admiring public.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Mona Lisa’s Long-Lost Sibling

It seems Leonardo da Vinci is never out of the news these days. Whether it’s the much-acclaimed blockbuster exhibition currently running in London’s National Gallery, or the recent row over the Louvre’s alleged over-cleaning of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, da Vinci and his work continue to inspire debate and controversy almost 500 years after his death.

The latest attention-grabbing headlines revolve around the ‘recent’ discovery, by Spain’s Prado Museum, of a copy of da Vinci’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa.

But hundreds of copies of the world’s most recognised artwork have appeared over the years – what makes this one so newsworthy? After all, this particular painting has been part of the Prado’s collection for nearly two hundred years and has, up to now, been widely considered as nothing more than an inferior reproduction.

Well, thanks to the very latest advancements in infrared technology, a recent analysis has proved that this version was actually painted at same time as the original – that is, one of Leonardo’s apprentices worked alongside the Grand Master copying his work, stroke for stroke - which makes this painting Mona Lisa’s exact contemporary.

Leonardo by Giorgio Vasari
This discovery is a significant one for the art world, not least because it finally confirms the long-held belief that da Vinci did not work alone, but in close collaboration with the students in his studio. And it also proves that Grand Master was not averse to selling inferior copies of his work should the need arise.

In the case of Mona Lisa - often said to be the artist’s favourite painting – it is now thought Leonardo was so attached to his creation that he refused to be parted with it, and instead delivered his apprentice’s copy to Francesco del Giocondo, the man who had originally commissioned the portrait.

If this is so, Signor del Giocondo got a raw deal, because although a highly competent painting in its own right, the copy lacks the hauntingly eerie, almost other-worldly presence that has ensured the original Mona Lisa remains, after 500 years, the world’s most talked-about work of art.

But don't take my word for it - judge for yourself ...