I have discovered, in reading more about Michael Hamburger and W.G. Sebald, both German émigrés who lived much of their lives in East Anglia, that their friendship was not straightforward, as appears in the Translator’s Note in Unrecounted, the volume of Sebald’s poems which Hamburger translated in 2005, where he reveals that ‘Although Max Sebald had given me copies of all his books published since our first acquaintance, he never so much as mentioned the writings of these miniatures to me and gave me no copy of For Years Now‘. Hamburger apparently described the final period of Sebald’s life ‘as a time of crisis…full of enigmas, conflicts and contradictions he chose not to clarify’. I learned this and much else about Sebald, including how Tacita Dean first came across his writings on a bus in Fiji in September 1999, in a website called Vertigo (https://sebald.wordpress.com). I recommend it.
Talking of beautiful things, we went last night to see the three ballets performed in honour of Leonard Bernstein’s death, including Yugen, based on the Chichester Psalms, commissioned by Walter Hussey, the Dean of Chichester Cathedral from 1955 to 1977. The set design was by Edmund de Waal, very simple, large vitrines, but appropriate for the intensity of the dance.
Of the four biographical films that Tacita Dean is showing at the National Portrait Gallery – David Hockney, Cy Twombly, Michael Hamburger and Merce Cunningham – I found the long, indeterminate film of Michael Hamburger in 2007, the year of his death, the most moving. Nor had I realised how important Hamburger was to an understanding of Sebald, a fellow émigré, who came to Britain with his family in 1933, settling first in Edinburgh, then London, then Hove, went to Westminster and Christ Church and began by translating Hölderlin. His desk, looking out onto orchards, shown in Dean’s film, appears in The Rings of Saturn and Dean made her film for an exhibition called Waterlog which was shown in Norwich Museum and the Sainsbury Centre in 2007. It shows Hamburger talking about the rare varieties of apple which he grew and picked.
Since I didn’t manage to see Tacita Dean’s exhibition Still Life properly last night, I thought I should have a proper look at it today. It’s an intriguing mix of old and new, starting with the continuities in the depiction of Still Life, with a group which includes work putatively by Chardin from the collection of the National Gallery, a Still Life by Henri de la Porte from the York Art Gallery, a Rose-Crested Cockatoo (1917) by William Nicholson and a print of Bread (2004), surprisingly by Cy Twombly (no photography). These are then juxtaposed with a very beautiful watercolour of Apples by William Holman Hunt and a film by Dean herself which examines slowly and tenderly images of the spotted surface and stalk of a pear in a glass bowl, itself severely mottled and dirty, in microscopic, but out-of-focus detail. Next door is a Zurbarán next door to a Wolfgang Tillmans, and a Sienese mountainscape next to Thomas Jones’s miniaturistic Wall in Naples (c.1782), interrupted by bird song. It’s all about the slow intensity and record in the observation of ordinary things, now and then.
I joined an early morning patrons’ tour of Eglon House, an homage to the Maison de Verre in a mews behind the public library in Primrose Hill. It was until recently an Express Dairy, in the days when there were still cows grazing on the slopes of Primrose Hill, but in the 1960s it was converted into recording studios for the likes of David Bowie. Six years ago, the site was bought and converted into a grand and fastidiously detailed (curtains by Henry Moore) live-work premises by Chassay Last architects, now on the market for £21 million. Alan Powers described the history of the original Maison de Verre, designed by Pierre Chareau for Dr. Jean Dalsace, a gynecologist who needed privacy, in a side street on the Left Bank, out of glass, steel and iron. It was first featured in an article in The Architect and Building News in 1934, rediscovered by Kenneth Frampton (and Richard Rogers) in the 1960s, and is now lived in by an American architectural historian:-
I went to the launch last night of the new biography of Whistler’s Mother: Portrait of an Extraordinary Life by Daniel Sutherland and Georgia Toutziari (actually, I was speaking at it). The book contains an account of how Whistler’s picture of his mother was submitted to the annual Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy in April 1872 and very nearly turned down: too unfinished perhaps, too nakedly emotional, too monochrome (these were all comments of the critics when it was first shown). They had already turned down The White Girl, his great portrait of Joanna Hiffernan ten years earlier, now The Symphony in White No. 1, one of the masterpieces of the National Gallery of Washington. Then, Sir William Boxall RA, the Director of the National Gallery, a shy man, who had been a friend of Wordsworth, told Council that he would resign if they did not accept the picture. The picture was grudgingly accepted and is now recognised as one of the greatest pictures of the nineteenth century. We wanted to borrow it for our forthcoming exhibition about the ups and downs of the Summer Exhibition, The Great Spectacle (opens June 12th.), but sadly weren’t able to. I’m sorry because it might have been possible to judge what its impact must have been amidst acres of mediocre subject painting.