E.H. Gombrich

Last night I went to a seminar/discussion on the life and work of Ernst Gombrich, the Director of the Warburg Institute from 1959 to 1972, by his two grandchildren, Leonie, who looks after his literary estate, and Carl, who is himself an interdisciplinary historian crossing the boundaries of the arts and sciences.

Two things stick in my mind. The first was Gombrich’s determination not to be described as an art historian, but as a historian tout court. This was a Warburg tradition, the belief that art was only one part of a broader cultural tradition; and he was certainly not, in any way, a connoisseur, the dominant characteristic of art history in the 1950s.

The second was his determination not to be regarded as a refugee, having arrived in London in 1936 of his own volition before the anschluss to join the staff of the Warburg Institute as a research assistant, working on Warburg’s papers, which led ultimately to the publication of Gombrich’s intellectual biography of Warburg, written in spite of Gombrich’s own dislike of biography as a genre.


Election Night

So, we wake up to a different country: blue across great swathes of the north of England; the Conservatives the new party of the working classes and Labour apparently now only representing cities, universities, the young; Anglesey is now conservative; Emma Dent Coad has lost: so has Jo Swinson; running through the results, Conservative gains in all sorts of unlikely places, including Sedgefield. The world has been turned upside down.


Election Day (2)

I have been castigated for describing Jeremy Corbyn as ‘without obvious political passion’. It is true that I have watched him in full political flow speaking against the Iraq War, but on television during the election campaign, I found him oddly dry and unwilling to attack Johnson effectively as he so easily could, and should have: most especially in describing his own position on Brexit which seems to be a natural sympathy for opponents of Brexit and a visceral, traditional Bennite hostility to the neoliberalism of the EU, whilst at the same time wanting to defend the EU’s stance on wages and its internationalism. If this is indeed his position, why couldn’t he bring himself to say so, particularly when attacked by Johnson ? I didn’t mean to suggest that he doesn’t have deep-rooted political beliefs, because he obviously does, just not as effective as he needed to be in expressing them.


Election Day (1)

I have never previously been so apprehensive about the outcome of an election as I am this morning.

I realise that I was brought up to think that the British regard extremism with distaste, never likely to succumb to it, more inclined to compromise, seeing the virtue of the other side, and, above all, with some level of belief in the truth. But now, suddenly, in a short space of time, we have been faced by a government and a ruling party which have bombarded us with lies, not just small lies, but gigantic and incorrigible lies, incessantly, and completely shameless about them when they have been unmasked, as when it was suggested that the poor boy in the hospital corridor in Leeds was a fraud. Journalists, instead of probing the lies, revealing them, have played a prominent role in recycling them, even including the BBC.

What have we come to ? Well, under normal circumstances, there would be a well-constituted opposition. I would like to respect Jeremy Corbyn, but have found it hard to, because he is so curiously lacking in any obvious political passion, although there have been faint glimpses of a mordaunt sense of humour in his online appearances, nowhere evident elsewhere. Boris Johnson’s almost only real achievement in the election campaign has been to make Jeremy Corbyn seem relatively honest and, by contrast to the torrent of untruth, just acceptable.

I hate to think that a majority of the electorate may vote in Johnson.



Since it is now in the public domain that I have left Blain|Southern, although I have been generously allowed to stay in my office, I should perhaps say how much I have enjoyed my brief sojourn in the commercial art world, how grateful I was to Harry Blain for hiring me, and how much I have appreciated the friendship of my colleagues there, as I disappear into pastures new.



Whitechapel Bell Foundry (15)

We went to an event tonight at Here East, an amazing set of new industrial spaces out in the Olympic Park near Hackney Wick, to see the way that new technology can be applied to the traditional techniques of Bell casting, in order to demonstrate that, if United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust are allowed to take the Whitechapel Bell Foundry over, they can introduce new, clean, environmentally friendly processes of casting, as well as invaluable systems of apprenticeship and training (there is apparently a big skills shortage in this area).  

Current technology uses a ceramic shell, based on aerospace, which allows for more detail in the surface.   In the past, it would have been done with loam through sand-casting. Prehistory meets hi-tech:-


British Library (2)

Those of you who, like me, have never upgraded from the old round Reading Room will be reassured to know that the new British Library retains many of the same characteristics, except, of course, that there are many more readers now that you don’t have to demonstrate your academic credentials and the public areas, which are strangely even more packed than the reading rooms – I assume because they provide somewhere warm and dry for students to sit at their laptops. Most of the books I ordered have to come from Boston Spa, but not all. What I particularly noticed is a different level of concentration if everyone is reading: a collective concentration, uninterrupted by chitchat and the mobile phone. I need to re-learn it.