Wednesday, July 27, 2011


We had planned so much to do in London and Manchester - not the least of which was to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum's The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 and, nostalgically for me, in Manchester look at one the best collections of Pre-Raphaelite paintings anywhere, paintings I'd not seen, outside of books, for many a long year. So much planned and commensurately such a disappointment in having to cancel - not on a whim, but out of necessity. A disappointment heralded by the PA's reaction on his first look at my MRI films. "Whoa!" he said, with awe in his voice, "I've never seen anything like this." It confirmed, I suppose, what we already knew, but had gone unspoken, about having to cancel the vacation - this after an epidural, the onset of "dropped foot" in both legs, and a return, despite the epidural, of the worst sciatic pain I'd ever had, followed by a fall flat on my back in the shower, and the fact that I was in a wheelchair. I thought "whoa!" was a fair reaction to what he saw. 

So, an unplanned break from blogging having ensued, as has surgery and physical therapy (ongoing) I'm now able to totter, with the use of a cane, to my desk and sit for a while, fogged a little from the medication, and wonder what I'm going to write about. I have read so much the last four weeks but somehow don't want to turn this post into a "what I read this summer" grade school essay but, nonetheless, when you're flat on your back for a couple of weeks there's not much else to do but read.

I mentioned a few weeks ago how I'd finally come round to e-books and was quite enthusiastic about them. I still am enthusiastic but, much as with p-books, e-books are a mixed bag in terms of design, typography and proof-reading or the lack thereof. Many e-books are poorly typeset, with total disregard for basic typographic principles – more "widows" and "orphans" than a Dickens' novel, captions cut adrift from the illustrations they describe, letter-spacing choppy at best. This might be excusable in the free e-books, on the basis that one is getting what one has paid for, but the same problems regularly arise in commercial e-books, too.

Paradoxically, at the same time as they appear to flout the basic good manners of typography, many e-books also seem locked into a "print" mindset, and fail to take advantage of the potential of the new online medium. Like the online shelter magazines I discussed here, they seem to designed by people whose training is in print, and not in web design. Both e-books and e-magazines are designed - though "design" in this context implies intent - to resemble their print counterparts. And that, to me, is the intrinsic flaw. Why, given the capabilities of digital linkages, am I still having to turn the digital page, and in the case of e-books why are the illustrations bundled together in sections as one would find with a print book? As I say, e-books and e-magazines, as I experience them, are designed by people who were trained in the limitations of print - limitations that do not, or should not, exist in e-design. The nearest I have come in my search for what I think an e-magazine should or could be is Flipboard.

So, what did I read this summer?

A terrific read, the top of my list, despite the fact that because of medication I found it hard to concentrate for long, is Rome by Robert Hughes - a book not yet published in the United States - a highly personal account of the city of Rome from its founding to its present-day cultural destitution. A quotation from the last chapter gives a good sampling of what you might expect from this book - a quotation, I think, that pretty well sums up the cultural meagerness of the present day, and not just in Italy.

"..... It has got worse since the sixties with the colossal, steamrollering, mind-obliterating power of TV - whose Italian forms are amongst the worst in the world. The cultural IQ of the Italian nation, if one can speak of such a thing, has dropped considerably and the culprit seems to be television, as it is in other countries. What is the point of fostering elites that few care about? It bestows no political advantage. In the wholly upfront culture of football, 'reality' shows and celebrity games, a culture of pure distraction, it is no longer embarrassing to admit that Donatello, like the temperature of the polar ice-cap or the insect population of the Amazon, is one of those things about which you, as a good molto tipico Italian and nice enough guy, do not personally give a rat's ass."

William Shawcross' Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography, my first e-book, led me to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother at Clarence House, by John Cornforth, a book about the history of the house itself and the role of the Queen Mother as art collector; thence to Christopher Hussey's Clarence House published in 1949 to commemorate the then-newly-married Princess Elizabeth and Duke of Edinburgh setting up home together at Clarence House in rooms formal and sparsely, if comfortably, furnished, with:

"Many gifts made to Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip at their wedding consisted in furniture of the second half of the eighteenth century. This was fortunate, for English cabinet-making and design reached their zenith during the reign of George the Third, in the hands of Robert Adam, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, and the consummate craftsmen who executed their designs. These designs, moreover, were inter-related by a continuous though changing trend of development. Consequently a definite stylistic unity is given by the furniture to the rooms of Clarence House. These, though built during the Regency, are essentially late Georgian in character, with the spacious simplicity that suits furniture produced during that epoch."

Christopher Hussey, the erstwhile editor of Country Life, wrote a beautiful and poetic description (some might call it purple prose) of the Sitting Room and it's worth quoting it full.

"The most attractive room in the house is undoubtedly Princess Elizabeth's Sitting Room..... There are two lofty windows in the long wall and a wider one in the end opposite the entrance, the strong light from which is diffused my white muslin curtains. For the walls Her Royal Highness specified aquamarine, a delicate pale blue with a hint of green in it. This is carried up into the ceiling cove, which should, in general, be the same colour as the walls, and thereby emphasizes their height. The mouldings dividing the walls into compartments appear to be early twentieth century, but those of the chair-rail and skirting give evidence of being original. The original chimney-piece of white marble and ormulu has been moved to provide a second fireplace in the Drawing Room, the original chimney-piece it closely matches. Its place has been taken by one of carved pine, re-assembled from members found in store at Kensington Palace. Its entablature, crisply carved in high relief with festoons of flowers in the rococo taste, sets its date fairly easily in the time of George II who occupied Kensington for most of his reign (1727-1760). The window curtains, of patterned damask, match the walls. The magnificent modern Chinese carpet of self-coloured wool, textured with an over-all pattern of conventional flowers in relief, is considerably lighter in tone and contributes to the effect of diffused lightness which is perhaps the outstanding impression given by the room.

"The impression might be imaginatively described as catching the sensation of an early morning in September, when the sky is of a pale cloudless blue, but when the sun is still veiled by a thin haze and the lawn is silvered with dew. At that hour, in the freshness of the dawn, when the cool light vibrates in refraction from an infinity of tiny prisms on gossamers and flower-petals, the scene sings with soft, clear, colour. But in the margins, among the stems of trees that still cast long shadows over the lawn, the light is stained to deeper tones by the green canopies above, except where through a chink some ray falls on a still pool, a dew-dropped twig, or golden cache of fallen leaves.

"The components of this fanciful picture have close analogies in the colours assembled in the Princess's room. The phloxes and hollyhocks of a late summer garden are always reminiscent of chintz, a covering material of which it is said she is fond. The pattern chosen here for sofa and easy chairs incorporates pink and white hollyhocks against the same misty blue as the walls. The cut-glass chandelier, of late eighteenth-century design, has a skeleton of old gilded bronze from which hang the festoons and cascades of drops catching and concentrating the sunlight. The oval Chippendale mirror above the fireplace, with rococo carved and gilt wood frame, is the craftsman's version of the sylvan pool, while in each wall-light of gilded and carved wood he has actually portrayed a pair of doves, whose song we might add to the scenic analogy."

At the bottom of my list, an e-book, The Age of Comfort by Joan DeJean - and this is not a criticism of the author's writing style or the content of the book - was maddening in its lack of proof-reading, its seemingly random underlining of certain sentences and paragraphs, and its occasional instruction to "see color illustration" of which I could fine none. I had the distinct impression that there had been a rush to e-publish, the detriment of quality being beside the point. It is this book that has caused my wariness of buying e-books. Nonetheless, the book is a good and interesting read - the author's premise being that there was a particular moment in 18th century Paris when comfort, rather than grandeur, became the priority and thereby transformed architecture and interiors up to the present day - but what began to dominate the author's account of that transformation was my reaction to the careless typesetting mentioned above.

Somewhere between the two extremes, and in no particular order, are: State of Wonder, by Anne Patchett - a beautifully written story of a "research scientist with a Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company, sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor ..." not, in my opinion, the spellbinder the book cover promised and I labored at it for quite a while. I think I should read it again for I admit I did not give it my best, falling asleep as frequently as I did when reading it; Doctored Evidence, the first of a number of Donna Leon's books I've enjoyed over the past weeks - marvelous evocations of Venice and the Italian political scene as experienced by her humane Commissario Guido Brunetti; The Man from St. Petersburg, by Ken Follett - I knew by the end of the first chapter this book was not for me but because it was a gift I persevered, again between bouts of nodding off, but neither the tale nor its characters enthralled me; Edward VII, Christopher Hibbert's biography (e-book) of Queen Victoria's eldest son, who despite his appalling childhood and lack of training in the job of monarchy, became a well-respected king, a loving father and grandfather; The Aspern Papers by Henry James, which I have yet to finish (and to be honest, doubt if I ever shall); Jane Austen's Persuasion (free from iBooks) which I assume needs no further description, and, finally, the newly-published and excellent Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, by John Julius Norwich - a very good read and an acute history of a line of rulers, spiritual and temporal, that began with St Peter and ends, thus far, with Benedict XVI. Actually an e-book which has got me through many a long dark hour when I awoke in the middle of the night and didn't want to wake the Celt by switching on the bedside light. I'm enjoying John Julius Norwich's book so much, obtusely perhaps, am going to buy the print version. And, I'll read it again from beginning to end.

So... what are you reading?

Photographs of Princess Elizabeth's Sitting Room and her Drawing Room from Clarence House, Christopher Hussey, Country Life Limited, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York 1949. No photographer's name given in the book.

Photographs of the Queen Mother's Sitting Room and her Drawing Room by Mark Fiennes, from Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother at Clarence House, John Cornforth, Michael Joseph London in association with The Royal Collection, London 1996.