George Elgar Hicks RA

I’m grateful for the question about the identity of the sitters in the portrait over the fireplace in my study, because I’ve never paid it the attention it probably deserves.   Hicks was a classic, successful Victorian RA:  trained in the RA Schools, where he won prizes for his studies after the antique;  worked as an illustrator;  exhibited every year in the Summer Exhibition;  became well known for big subject paintings, beginning with Dividend Day, Bank of England, shown in 1859, which were very popular with the public, but regarded as vulgar by the critics.   By the 1870s, he had moved into the realm of society portraiture, of which my great grandmother’s portrait with her first child is probably a good example – immaculately well painted, as if in the style of the Old Masters, Reynolds especially, but a tiny bit saccharine, designed to appeal, as it no doubt did, to my ardently evangelical, philanthropic and, I suspect, fairly philistine great grandfather (it would have cost something over 300 guineas):-

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The Study

Since today is the first day that I have actually been able to work in my study for at least ten years, the books being more or less cleared from the floor, I am posting a picture of it, as requested, together with a picture of a head which I bought in an old antique shop on the street which leads up from the bridge through the Malá Strana towards Prague Castle:-

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Shell Guides

As anyone who reads my blog will know, I have been deeply influenced by the style, character, typography and everything else, including probably a lot of the prejudices, of the Shell Guides, with which I was brought up and of which I have a reasonably extensive, but sadly incomplete, collection.   Before going on holiday I was reading David Heathcote’s admirable A Shell Eye on England:  The Shell County Guides 1934-1984, which provides a comprehensive analysis of how the guides evolved, beginning rather haphazardly with Betjeman’s guide to Cornwall, published in 1934, with its surreal mix of sans-serif and Victorian typefaces, through Robert Byron on Wiltshire with its wild photomontage cover by Lord Berners, until the series began to settle into some of its definitive characteristics with Paul Nash on Dorset in 1936 and his brother John on Bucks. the following year (the early guides used abbreviations in the titles, I assume as a Betjemanesque joke).   What Heathcote reveals is how much the early guides depended on the aesthetic of surrealism – the interest in detail, the prehistoric and the ordinary.   Stephen Bone on the West Coast of Scotland was apparently a best seller.   Heathcote ascribes Faber’s decision in 1984 to end the guides to changing tastes and the fact that people were going on holiday to the Mediterranean, but it must also have been due to the increasing competition from Pevsner and because the formula eventually became a bit stale – less good authors and a loss of Betjeman’s vim.

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David Tang

I have been very upset to hear news of David Tang’s death.    Of course, it doesn’t come as a great surprise since I, alongside probably several hundred of his other close friends, had been invited to an event at the Dorchester next week to bid farewell to him, a characteristically flamboyant way for him to announce his imminent departure.   He was a Trustee of the Royal Academy, and had been for over twenty years, playing a lively part at Trustee meetings, always with particularly strong views on anything to do with catering.   I got to know him best when he invited not just me, but Romilly as well (it was, after all, over Easter) and a large chunk of the British museum world, to an event which he was organising in Hong Kong to consider the future of the West Kowloon Cultural District.   Again, this was wholly characteristic.   He had not been asked to organise the event, but did it off his own bat, arranging for us all to fly out, putting us up at the Mandarin Oriental, and encouraging us to talk about the experience of running art institutions in London and how this experience might benefit what was being planned in Hong Kong.   He was funny, lively, totally irreverent, sometimes spectacularly rude, a brilliant pianist, supporter of Bach, collector of Chinese paintings, and proprietor of the China Club, where he hosted huge parties and one could smoke cigars on a balcony overlooking Hong Kong.   Life will be poorer without him.

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Conran Shop

I had been tipped off that the Conran Shop stocked copies of my book, in amongst the books about fashion and cooking:-

What’s more the man behind the counter (he was maybe the shop manager) recognised me and pressed a serated knife in my hands (that’s what I was looking for).   Fame at last !

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A Family Album

I have been accused of having lost a family album, so was rather pleased whilst looking into the back of a filing cabinet to discover an old photo album from the 1930s, which is (I hope) the one that I mislaid.   The photographs are very small scale, so hard to reproduce.   There’s a good one of my grandfather, which is a studio photograph – I assume from 1918, since he is shown in military uniform (from April 1917 to the end of the war, he had been a chaplain on the western front) with my uncle, who would then have been aged 4 (born in December 1914):-

There is a picture of my mysterious grandmother, Ermintrude Buchanan Wollaston, always known as Bee, who I never met (she died in Anglesey during the second world war):-

My handsome uncle John, I guess when he was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge (the photograph dates from 1934):-

I thought this picture was also of him, but it turns out that, at the time, he couldn’t drive.   It’s apparently a friend of his, called Tom Creighton, and the vehicle, a Morris Oxford, was known as ‘The Cabbage Box’ (information kindly supplied by my cousin Hugh):-

My mother who was very keen on fishing:-

And my aunt Peg, whose album it was, on the occasion of her wedding to my uncle John:-

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Disinterring Books (2)

I have had another long day sorting books as I approach the floor of my library.   I have realised why I hate doing this.   It is like clearing up someone’s effects after they have died, the only difference being that I am that person.   Anyway, I have made a few more discoveries en route:-

1.  A book on Country House Baroque, published, I am intrigued to discover, in 1940, by Heywood Hill Ltd., which gives its address then as 17, Curzon Street (when did it change to no. 10 ?).   The photographs, which are of stuccowork in English and Irish country houses, are of the highest quality (stuccowork is at all not easy to photograph, not least because much of it is on the ceiling) and are by Anthony Ayscough, to whom the book is also dedicated.   He had died the previous year, aged only 29, a painter, who had also produced a book on German Baroque Sculpture, with an introduction by Nikolaus Pevsner, had travelled widely in Europe, including Bavaria, Greece and Ireland, and died in a car crash ‘in Christmas week 1939’.

2.  I couldn’t work out where to shelve Sacheverell Sitwell’s book on Southern Baroque Art and looked at its introduction to assess whether it belonged in Italy or Spain (it’s about both).   My eye was struck by an intriguing comment about taste where he comments (the book was published in 1923) how ‘Too many people, looking like each other, and all talking in one and the same voice, may be heard at this time loud in the praise of Matisse and André Derain, while they have already returned to Raphael, and will soon come back to admire Guido Reni, falling victims by this to a strong and complete mental boomerang’.   Is this, I wonder, a jibe against Bloomsbury taste ?

3.  The catalogue of an exhibition entitled Vitruvius Americanus:  Colonial Newport in the Palladian Tradition, pubished by the Redwood Library in newport, Rhode Island.   I didn’t realise that there was a new edition of Palladio’s First Book of Arhitecture published in 1721 at the height of the Palladian Revival, but ‘with a New Model of the Cathedral of St. Paul’s, London, as it is now rebuilt’, suggesting that, at the time, the work of Wren was viewed as neo-Palladian.   The library has a perfect set of books relating to neo-Palladian taste, as one might expect from the character of its design by Peter Harrison.

4.  As with Sitwell, I couldn’t work out where to shelve Austin Dobson’s Rosalba’s Journal and other papers.   It was previously in my section devoted to Horace Walpole, which is surprisingly extensive (Walpole had a portrait of John Law by Rosalba Carriera in his Long Gallery).   Maybe it can go in the section on Samuel Johnson, also extensive, because there’s an essay on Streatham Place.   In the end it goes back to Walpole, by reshelving Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men, which doesn’t belong there.

5.  A copy of Vittorio Lampugnani, Urban Design as Craft .   This is a series of interviews about the task of townplanning, which got me interested in the modern practitioners of the genre.   Much good work is being done in Bond Street and, I hope, in due course, in Burlington Gardens and the surrounding streets by Publica, which follows many of Lampugnani’s precepts.

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