Nonfiction November #NonFicNov23 – Week Two, Choosing Nonfiction

I am excited to be hosting Week 2 of Nonfiction November this week.  The other hosts for Nonfiction November are fellow bloggers Liz (Adventures in reading, running and working from home), , Heather (Based on a True Story), and Lisa (Hopewell’s Public Library of Life), and Rebekah (She Seeks Nonfiction).

  • Week 2Dates: 11/6-11/10
    • Host: That would be me, Frances
    • Title: Choosing Nonfiction
    • Description: What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

Do you find yourself wandering around bookshops – that is if  you are lucky enough to have access to a real bookshop these days – thinking that you fancy reading something ‘different’ but you’ve no idea what it is?  I used to often feel this way.

We are peddled a relentless diet of best-sellers and known names, books which may or may not answer a need, and nowhere is that feeling stronger than in a high street bookstore.  Where is the opportunity for that quirky discovery with the battered binding?

Since I have discovered the blogosphere and all my bookish friends online, I don’t really have a problem in finding books to read any more, quite the opposite.  But I do miss just wandering around the shelves and picking up a book here or there just to see.

When browsing, I avoid footballers, celebrities and disgruntled royals.   I look for good biography, memoir, art, art history.  I mentioned in my post last week the occasional guilt complex at not reading more widely in other categories.  Probably in 2024 I will try and address that.

In terms of a favoured cover I’m pretty sold on this one which is from my current read, Jackie Wullschlager’s Biography, Monet: The Restless Vision:


I love colour.

I think human beings are attracted to bright colours.  Maybe Monet thought so too.  Here is some colour courtesy of the net.

Geordanna Cordero on Unsplash

I’m also a fan of the new nature writing, usually a blend of authoritative essay style writing on the natural world, combined with autobiographical details from the life of the author

Little Toller Books have an excellent if a somewhat pricey array of these books. Here are three that have caught my eye.

.  My

An allotment is a utopia. It is a green place where anyone can occupy a piece of land, and grow with freedom of expression.

I don’t know whether people that use allotments would agree with that idea, or how you grow with freedom of expression – or without freedom of expression unless you’re entering for Chelsea.  I’m not really a gardener in any way shape or form but my brother in law has worked an allotment plus a garden for decades.  I never quite understood how anyone manages all that work!  I suspect he may not wish to read about the history of them though, so passing swiftly on.

Richard Mabey was maybe one of the first writers to write about mental health and natural world issues combined in his book Nature Cure which I have read.  In my review I wrote:

Mabey’s book is an enlightening read, erudite without being dry, honest to the point of bleakness in parts, without being depressing. It was one of the first in the style which came to be known as the new nature writing, along with naturalist and friend Mark Cocker. These are books which entwine stories of the natural world with the writer’s own biographical tales.

Taking far longer than usual to move out of the house in which he grew up, and aided and abetted by a severe bout of depression, Mabey makes his belated escape to the Norfolk fens where he writes about sheets of water, the Wailing Wood, owls, birds, fens, the yellow star-of-bethlehem and orchids in an ‘ethereal shade of rose’. But his particular interest, like the poet John Clare

Mabey has written many, many books including a biography of the naturalist and author Gilbert White whom wiki credits with ‘shaping the modern attitude of respect for nature’ which seems a rather extraordinary claim.  I didn’t realise there was a modern attitude of respect for nature judging by the ecology crisis we have on our hands.  But I think I will put this one on my TBR.


Does anyone else find themselves drawn to a particular theme or topic?  Style of writing? Titles? Covers? They say you can’t tell a book by one, but hey, a good cover certainly helps.

If you are taking part in Nonfiction November Week 2,  don’t forget to add your link below.  I’ve been so happy to help host this challenge but the only thing I’ve been panicking about is the link party.  Despite the kindness of Rebekah at (She Seeks Nonfiction) and others showing me what to do, my link party looks worryingly unlike anyone else’s.  Therefore please if you have any problems, just leave the link to your post in the comments below.



You are invited to the Inlinkz link party!

Click here to enter





All the Beauty in the World by Patrick Bringley and (scroll down) Classics Club Spin 18, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

All The Beauty in the World

Patrick Bringley writes of art as foundational to the need for human solace and the need for creativity.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a Museum Guard,  standing there for hours and hours with crowds streaming past, constantly on the lookout for some idiot using flash photography, or damaging the paintings or climbing over barriers that are evidently there not to be climbed over? I suppose my answer to my own question is that  if I had  wondered what it was like, I would have assumed it would be quite boring.  Patrick Bringley will answer this question.  In fact, Patrick Bringley will answer most people’s questions about everything in this wonderful book All the Beauty in the World : A Museum Guard’s Adventures in Life, Loss and Art. (Vintage)


Above all this is a personal journey, starting with his being taken to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (fondly known as the Met) by his mother as a child,

“In my memory, it was so still in the museum that the statues appear to have fallen under a recent and sudden enchantment.  It was so silent, we could hear our footfalls on the pale stone floors.  We climbed a stairway toward a gold Diana statue, her weight forever on the ball of one foot, her hand perpetually adding tension to a bowstring.”

and leading on to his taking a job there as a guard after the death of his older brother, Tom.  It was the only way he knew how to deal with his grief.    All the Beauty is a book about standing still both in work and in life. Bringley already had a great job – but  felt that he could no longer cope with the pressure of having to rush forward.  He just needed time to be still.   And where do you find that time but in a Museum, a place which is wholly representative of time?

Bringley is highly knowledgeable about the collections he is guarding.   Museum Guards are constantly asked questions –  not just ‘where are the loos’ or ‘where’s the cafeteria?’.     Many other questions too.  Like, where is the Mona Lisa?   ‘At the Louvre in Paris’, he replies.  Oh, not here then?  No, not here.  Once he was excited to be posted for the Met Ball but found himself miles from the event and saw nothing.

Of course there are negatives too: punishingly long shifts;  sore feet and legs; no week-ends free; only the most senior guards are given holiday allowance over the Summer.  But Bringley evidently loved his time there.   To the author the long stretches spent standing and looking  were not in the least boring.  By the end of his time at the Met he knows every collection, every route, every gallery, pretty much every work of art.  There is a fascinating piece on the Gee’s Bend quilters and far too many other collections to list here.

He says, not only does he like his job but “it would be an indecency, a stupidity even a betrayal to find fault with such  peaceable, honest work. No, I prefer to be grateful, grateful for the soft wood floors and thousand year old art, grateful for all the stuff I don’t have, like a product to sell, lies to tell, a ditch to dig, a register to ring.”

Patrick Bringley worked at the Met for 10 years and by the time he feels ready to move on he is married with two children, has made loads of friends and has written this great book.    So although he took the job at the Met because he was tired of having to push forward all the time in a previous high profile career, interestingly his life has moved forward anyway. Just in different and more profound ways perhaps.

On the front cover is a quote from Hope Jahren (whose book Lab Girl I adored) saying that this made her:

‘yearn to have Patrick Bringley at my side at every Museum I will ever visit for the rest of my life’.

His engagement with art is so fresh, so unacademic and completely unsnobbish, yet so knowledgeable.

This is such a lovely book  I can heartily recommend to any art lover or simply if you are curious about people who stand still for a living or the connection between our greatest art works and mental health.  I do not mean that in a woke or politically correct way.  Sadly there is is too much slinging around of terms relating to psychological distress that are little or barely understood by the people doing the slinging.

Bringley writes of art in a way that is foundational to solace and the human need for creativity.


Classics Club Spin XVIII – The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

#ccspin #whatimreading

And talking of psychological distress, here is one from my Classics Club List, Henry James The Turn of the Screw (Penguin Classics).  There was a classics club spin recently which I missed but the number came up as 18 so I have chosen number eighteen off my main list as a belated way of taking part in the challenge.

So to the plot.

Bly is the setting, a house to which a young governess (who has led a sheltered life), comes to look after two children Miles and Flora at the behest of their guardian. I mention the sheltered life bit because that is pretty much all we know about her.  She does not even get a name.  In this she shares a relationship with Maxim de Winter’s second wife in du Maurier’s Rebecca. Although the two characters have little else in common.

James’ heroine speaks as though she has swallowed several dictionaries.

How about this from the beginning of Chapter VI:

“It took of course more than that particular passage to place us together in presence of what we now had to live with as we could, my dreadful liability to impressions of the order so vividly exemplified,  and my companion’s knowledge henceforth – a knowledge half consternation and half compassion – of that liability.”

Does a young governess – even one from the 19th century –  really think or speak like that?  I don’t know because, dear reader,  even I am not that old.

It’s difficult to talk about any of the plot points of Turn of the Screw without giving something away.   According to the introduction to this edition,  written by David Bromwich, James himself described his ghost story as being ‘meant for readers he hardly supposed to be ready for his major fiction.’  In other words, just a conventional ghost story aimed at those who like the genre.

I heartily wish that were the case for at least then we might have had a thumping good ghost story.  But this is not that.

Yes there are ghosts, and we are told by the good housekeeper Mrs Grose (who never actually sees them) that they could be the ghosts of people who during their lifetimes worked at the house and behaved in a reprehensible manner.  Nothing is ever specified.   Can it be assumed that in death these deceased servants are equally up to no good?  That is an assumption which is made – not by the author but by the narrator – and it is one on which it seems to me that  the entire story turns.

The governess comes to believe that the children are possessed.  But are they?  Whose reality are we dealing with here?  It is in any event an assumption that will lead to dire consequences.





Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun (French Painter & Portraitist (1755-1852)

History’s Forgotten Artists

“The canon of art history is global, however, with the male Western narrative being so unjustly dominant at the expense of others, it is this that I unpack and challenge.” (Katy Hessel)

When I picked up A Story of Art (Without Men) by Katy Hessel I thought I would find within its 520 pages sad stories of women artists who almost made it if only they could have got the right breaks such as investment in the appropriate art training; or ladies for whom art could only ever be a ‘hobby’ because of those burdens society places upon women which it does not equally place upon men.  I thought in other words it would constitute some sort of lengthy eulogy for lost opportunities and missed vocations.

Not a bit of it.   This book is a celebration, although if you listen carefully it is not without its soundtrack of ground teeth!  Within the covers of this minutely researched book are hundreds of biographical accounts and pictorial reproductions of the work of established artists – many successful and even famous in their own times – who have simply vanished.    They have vanished from the history books, from galleries, from scholarship, from the curatorial mind.

What has caused this extinction?  In one sentence it is this:  Western cultural histories have focused on a single race and gender and ignored the contributions of any who do not fit that mould.    We are not talking here about art criticism –  but rather the exclusion of the woman artist from art history, scholarship and curatorial policy.

What I have particularly enjoyed about this book is Hessel’s refusal to place these artists in the context of their more famous (male) peers.  It is tempting even for the most ardent feminist to consider, for example, Gwen John, as the sister of the more famous Augustus.    But within these pages there are few such references.    Brothers, husbands, lovers, all mysteriously vanish.  None of the artists included in these pages is a muse, a sitter or an inspiration for a better known man.  Instead Hessel has placed her women within the political and social context of their times; within the sphere of influence and the schools of art and thought in which they framed their work.  Exactly as would be done in a compendium of male artists.  By the way,  that compendium of male artists  is effectively the ‘art history bible’ that E.H. Gombrich wrote.  He omitted hundreds of artists simply because of their gender.


So who are we talking about.  There are hundreds of artists – far too many to list – artists from the 17th century through to the 21st.

I strongly advise reading the book.  But here are a few of the new-to-me names:

Judith Leyster, Dutch (1609-1660).  At the age of 24 Leyster was the youngest member of the Haarlem Painters Guild – she was running a studio complete with apprentices and three male pupils by the age of thirty).  Her career declined as a result of marriage, children, and having to manage her husband’s studio.

Rosalba Carriera, Venetian (1673-1757) earned a living painting portraits and miniatures, with an international clientele.

Katsuschika Oi of Japan (1800-1866) earned recognition as an artist of the floating world but lived in the shadow of her famous father, Hokusai.

Emily Mary Osborn, British (1828-1925) A great campaigner for women’s suffrage she used her paintings to critique the constant setbacks experienced by women.

Jacqueline Marval (French) (1866-1932) painted Les Odalisques, which was exhibited in 1902-3. Hessel finds Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (exhibited 1907) to be ‘strikingly similar in composition’ to Marval’s earlier work.


Hessel points out a number of potential cases of unattributed influence.  For example,  still famous and still at the forefront of the avant-garde Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama arrived in New York in 1957 with a suitcase full of drawings and “mountains of creative energy stored inside myself”. Her ideas for a sequentially printed wallpaper were created two years before Andy Warhol produced his ‘suspiciously similar’ Cow Wallpaper.

What joy to discover that from the 17th to the 21st century it is possible to travel through an entire history of every nation and every school of art (not only in painting but weaving, photography, sculpture, performance art) without looking at a single work by a man!

And no, that is not revisionist.  That is just rebalancing the scales.  All but a handful of these artists have been forgotten.  Now that Hessel’s book has won Waterstones Book of the Year Award, that sound you can hear is the sound of galleries scrabbling to catch up.  Look out for increasing representation and solo exhibitions in the coming years.


Up next, What July Knew, Emily Koch



Art Herstory: The Story of Art (Without Men), Katy Hessel

Here’s a little test for anyone who wants to try.  Without googling or other reference searches, make a list down one side of a page of names of male artists that you can quickly think of – from any period.   Now on the other side, do the same for female artists.


How did you get on? Much easier to list the guys isn’t it.

My list was Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Manet, Monet, Poussin, Hopper, Lucian Freud, Hockney, Andy Warhol.

The only names of lady artists I could come up with without searching were:  Artemisia Gentileschi;  Frida Kahlo; Vanessa Bell; Gwen John; Celia Paul (the latter only because I happen to have recently read and reviewed her autobiography – not because I knew her work); Yayoi Kusama and Louise Bourgeois.

This is why my christmas reading will be a book called The History of Art Without Men by Katy Hessel.

This could be down to my lack of knowledge of the history of art. But I don’t think so.  Hessel was told by some young people that they hadn’t been taught any women artists in school.  Historically perhaps  it is thought there are not many women artists so we don’t need to know about them.  Or perhaps they couldn’t afford the fees or the time to go to art school, and/or couldn’t get away from the kids or the husband long enough to actually produce any work.    Shades of Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own. No doubt there is truth in these suppositions.

But it is not that there are or have been no female artists.    Women artists there are and have been a-plenty. Hessel’s book has more than 400 pages and illustrations.  But women artists are not taught in schools;  they do not get solo exhibitions. Their work is not circulated;  their work is not sold.

Hessel writes in her introduction that she was shocked when, in October 2015, she walked into an art fair and realised that out of thousands of artworks ‘not a single one was by a woman’. She asked herself,

“… could I name 20 women artists of the top of my head? Ten pre-1950? Any pre-1850?”

No, came the unsurprising answer.  But Hessel didn’t just shrug and say oh well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.  She started an Instagram account @thegreatwomenartists concentrating on researching female artists working in different mediums from painting to sculpture, photography to textiles.  Which led to the publication of this book.

She writes:

“Women artists make up just 1% of the London’s National Gallery Collection.  It’s first ever major solo exhibition by a historic female artist, Artemisia Gentileschi,” Hessel continues, “was staged only in 2020.”

At the same time, the standard text on art history written by E.H. Gombrich The Story of Art included zero women in its first (1950 edition).  The sixteenth edition includes one.  I suppose you could call that 100% increase.

It is against these overwhelming odds that young female artists must enter – if they are even able to – into their first years in art school and as working artists.

There is some evidence that things are very slowly changing. Maybe Hessel’s book will be part of that change. I hope it will.    Galleries will scrabble to catch the zeitgeist.

The Royal Academy in London is already doing some scrabbling of its own,  with an exhibition called Making Modernism featuring four German modernist artists: Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907), Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), Gabriele Münter (1877-1962) and Marianne Werefkin (1860-1896).



Making Modernism as a title for this exhibition was very interesting I thought.  ‘Making’ implies creating something, being in at the start, does it not? Modernism as a philosophy of art has been around since late 19th, early 20th century right?  If these ladies were in at the beginning,  why does it take until December 2022 for this exhibition to appear?    No answer came the stern reply.


Did I enjoy the exhibition.  In a word, yes.  Although this is a more complex question when the very fact of the exhibition is itself a milestone.

Making Modernism is housed in a subsidiary gallery at the back of the Royal Academy premises on Piccadilly.   It is quite a long walk from the front to the back of the building, upstairs and downstairs several times.  The main galleries which are easily accessible from the front of the building, were occupied by another (male) artist,  William Kentridge.

So back to the less main gallery.  There were portraits of women and children although not often in the same canvas. But without the idealisation of the Madonna and child ideology, some of them seemed quite unsparing.   The children all looked stunned – as if they would prefer to be just about anywhere else except where they found themselves.

But I didn’t want to keep thinking about the gender of the artists.  I wanted to consider the works as I would any other exhibition.  If I had gone to Tate Modern to see Cezanne, I wouldn’t be thinking about Cezanne being a man.  That goes without saying.  And part of the trouble is that for centuries, it has gone without saying that artists are men.  We don’t even think about the painting in front of us as a product of the gender of the artist.    We think about tone, light, shade, composition, skill with brushwork, whatever.   But in this exhibition we have no choice but to consider gender.

As author Rachel Cusk writes in her assessment of the exhibition for the Royal Academy of Arts Magazine: “the choice that a woman artist such as Gabriele Münter had to make was “to adopt male objectivity and hope to ‘pass’ as an honorary man; or to declare her femininity and its themes from the outset.”   She chose the latter.

There is a massive irony in that.   Just as a woman is trying to declare herself as an artist on equal terms (haha) with a man, she has to produce pictures of the domestic sphere in which she is forced to spend much of her time and where sitters are readily available to her.

What then is the solution for woman as artist?  To pick up the fact of femininity and womanhood and run with it?   To wave it in people’s faces with work that is less than comforting.  Perhaps.   It is after all what Tracy Emin did with her unmade bed.

And that is another name on my list of ladies above.

A Painting, A Poem, a Predator: Nonfiction November Week 2 #NonficNov

Here is this week’s challenge:

Week 2: (November 7-11) – Book Pairing: This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title (or another nonfiction!). It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story. Or pair a book with a podcast, film or documentary, TV show, etc. on the same topic or stories that pair together. ( Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction)


I’m not sure if this counts for Nonfiction November since Rennie doesn’t mention paintings or poetry but I’m hoping it does!  I’m pairing a fictional account of the life of Lucrezia di Cosimo de Medici (1545 to 1561 who was married at the age of 13 to  Alfonso II d’Este (1533-1597) Duke of Ferrara,  as written in The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell (reviewed here) with the only known portrait of the Duchess, and the poem based on the painting  Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’.   The painting was made shortly before she died, at the age of just 16.

Browning’s response to Bronzino’s work of art is empathetic with the permanently silenced woman who stares out from the frame.  It is hard to believe, looking at this image of a girl so solemn and regally attired that she is only 16 years of age.

North Carolina Museum of Art

My Last Duchess


That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!


The only voice we hear in Browning’s poem is that of the Duke.  He is showing some visitors a portrait of his late wife.  He does not use the word ‘late’ though, he says ‘last’ as if there will be a string of them.  As in fact there were two more wives after Lucrezia.  By the end of the poem, we become aware that the visitor the Duke is showing round is there to negotiate a dowry for the next poor soul of a bride!

This is a poem riven by sexual jealousy which even the death of the woman in the portrait does not seem to allay.  The Duke starts off calmly enough then gets angrier as he speaks :

She had a heart/How shall I say? Too soon made glad/Too easily impressed. 

He is still maintaining ownership of the dead woman

(Since none puts by/The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)

even as he negotiates with his visitor for a dowry from the family of the next wife!  So much for ‘my gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name’.  Though of course, he says at the end it’s the ‘fair daughter’s self’ he wants, not the money, as he carts the poor visitor out past a bust of Neptune.

Loathesome man the Duke but extraordinary and very famous poem.  There is a full analysis of Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess on the excellent Poetry Foundation website here.

O’Farrell’s bookThe Marriage Portrait  is about two portraits.  The one is the physical portrait which we know of today and the second is the actual lived experience of Lucrezia’s short and miserable marriage to Alfonso. O’Farrell gives this young girl back the voice and the story that history has denied her.

I hope and trust that The Marriage Portrait will win all the plaudits and prizes that unjustifiably eluded O’Farrell’s previous book Hamnet.  For my money she is one of our finest writers.

This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew

Carrying on with my ‘lives of the artists’ series of posts, I was happy to have a recommendation from Rune Sister of This Rare Spirit: A life of Charlotte Mew, by Julia Copus (Faber & Faber, 2020). A sisterly recommendation was most apt for this particular book about this particular poet, whose close relationship with her own sister, Anne, was a mainstay of her existence.  Anne was a painter but sadly, despite being a prize winning student,  she never really had the opportunity to develop this career.

Charlotte Mary Mew (1869-1928) lived in London only a few doors away from the famous and gifted Literati known as the Bloomsbury set, but Charlotte’s life did not allow her to move in those famed and elegant circles.  She did meet Virginia Woolf and the former knew about her work, but Charlotte had been forced into a very different life than that of the literary salon.  When war poet Siegfried Sassoon queried (after Charlotte’s death) whether Woolf would write about her, he answered his own question by wondering whether there would be enough generosity in that direction– ultimately it seemed there was not.  In fact Charlotte Mew did not align herself with any literary movement and this has made her, perhaps, more obscure than she should be for a poet of such evident talent.    Her best known and most anthologised work is called, The Farmer’s Bride.    It is this error that Julia Copus wished to rectify in writing this biography, and she has made a magnificent job.


Charlotte lived a hard life.   It seemed that she never married or entered into any known relationships.  There are no love letters sent or received in the archives that Copus combed through to bring us this minutely researched book.  This in itself is a sad testimony to a life expended in familial duty.

Although Charlotte Mew was not born into poverty, the death of her father and  a succession of other disasters to hit the family led to their financial situation deteriorating. Not only that, but at quite a young age Charlotte found herself head of the household.  Copus writes:

“Her daily life was filled with running the house, caring for her needy mother and her siblings, and arranging the family’s legal and business affairs.”

Hardly an encouraging environment for a great poet.  But it’s been done.  Emily Dickinson famously wrote at 2 in the morning.   It was the only time she could get the peace and quiet she needed to concentrate on her all-consuming art.

Yet despite the burdens of household management, Charlotte Mew wrote both short stories and poetry.   There is little in the book about her influences or working methods but that is probably because she didn’t much discuss these.  In fact Mew claimed in a letter to read little and know less about poetry, a statement to which her work gives the lie.

She published only one volume within her lifetime, but her poetry was admired by such luminaries as Thomas Hardy, Siegfried Sassoon and the American poet Hilda Doolittle.   HD said that Mew was one of just three poets then living to have succeeded in the art of the dramatic monologue.

The author writes in her introduction that the book is her attempt to “restore her [Charlotte Mew] to her rightful place in our literary heritage.”    Copus has undertaken a massive amount of research including previously unseen material – letters, photographs, diaries and testimonies.  The author’s own writing is vivid and immediate, sympathetic and with a great feeling of truth.   I felt forlorn on finishing the book and wanted to start reading from the beginning again, for more of the life story of this courageous and hopefully now a little less unsung poet. I wanted to read once more extracts from Charlotte Mew’s incandescent writing.



Creative Differences and The Artistic Life

Always a Beatles fan I didn’t realise how little I knew about the factors that led to the band’s break up.  Creative differences, yes, but not really any of the specifics.    In a set of contemporary interviews with Rick Rubin (on Disney+) Paul McCartney comments on this:  he was he says heartbroken when the band broke up, he thought he would be in The Beatles forever.

Forever is a long time but it is hard to imagine now that the Beatles were together for only 7 years.  All those iconic songs.    I have been fascinated to watch The Beatles: Get Back, Peter Jackson’s documentary footage (Disney+) from 1969 about the band rehearsing for what would turn out to be their last live performance.

Even whittled down, this footage still amounts to three films, each two hours long, so watching is a time commitment, but I am taking it in sections.  The tensions between the fab four in Peter Jackson’s film quickly become apparent.

Beginning just after the New Year in 1969, The Beatles for some reason gave themselves only three weeks to rehearse an entire show including writing a dozen new songs.  It seems a crazy thing to do with hindsight or without it.  Under that sort of pressure existing cracks only deepened.   George says at one point: ‘perhaps we should get a divorce’.  To which Paul replies: ‘I suggested that at our last meeting’. Neither of them is joking.

Given that this is the post Sergeant Pepper era and the band is beyond famous  (John Lennon has managed to get himself into trouble with the establishment by saying that The Beatles are “more popular than Jesus”) the rehearsals are a muted affair.  I suppose those of us not involved in the industry only get to see the razzamatazz of a rehearsed and perfected show. But this is a fly on the wall view of what it takes to reach that point.   Rehearsing in a drab looking space in Twickenham Studios, along with George Martin and a couple of roadies, the band is searching for an 8-track recorder.  Where will they get one from!  EMI?  Apparently not.  They end up having to use George Harrison’s own 8-track recorder which is says is £10,000 worth of equipment – an unimaginable sum of money back then.  In fact it’s still rather a lot now!

I was ever a big McCartney fan and still am.  No amount of footage will stop me worshipping at that particular shrine.  The guy is a genius.    But here  he does come across as a bit bossy and a bit sarcastic with George.  At times the two of them struggle to agree the time of day.   John doesn’t help much by insisting on Yoko’s presence throughout these tense rehearsals.   There were no phones in those days, she just sits there.   Paul remarks that in fifty years they will say that the Beatles broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.

But the greatest thing about watching this footage  is the chance to see and hear songs like Get Back and Long and Winding Road – songs that have now been famous for half a century – coming into being.   While we are watching try-outs I am telling them they don’t have the words right yet.  It should be Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona.   Is Tucson in Arizona? John asks.  Yes it is.  It’s where they filmed High Chaperral, Paul answers.

The first film ends with George walking out.  He writes in his diary.  ‘Rehearsed at Twickenham until lunchtime.  Left the Beatles.  Went home.’

What I’ve been reading

This week I have read Letters to Gwen John by the artist Celia Paul whose autobiographical work Self-Portrait I reviewed here.

Letters to Gwen John by Celia Paul

Gwen John (1876 – 1939) was a born in Haverfordwest in Wales.  The family later moved to Tenby in Pembrokeshire.   Her mother Augusta, died when Gwen was a child.

Gwen’s life in some respect followed a similar arc to that of the author.  She too attended the Slade School of art (1895-1898) where she was somewhat overshadowed by her brother, Augustus John.   Later she went to Paris on her own and lived alone to pursue her life as an artist.  Although the author has a son whereas Gwen had no children.

Gwen, like Celia Paul,  had a relationship with a more famous and much older man – another Auguste –  Rodin to whom Gwen remained devoted and somewhat in thrall her entire life.    Paul questions their devotion to the men in their lives that came at such an emotional cost.  Gwen she says was always associated with her brother Augustus and with her lover, Auguste Rodin.

“What is it about us that keeps us tethered?  Both of our talents are entirely separate from the men we have been attached to – we are neither of us derivative in any way.”  Do you think that, without fully understanding why, we are both of us culpable?”

Although I was not sure this book was quite as good as Self-Portrait Paul’s writing is very engaging.  Necessarily, since these letters are addressed to someone who is dead and cannot correspond, the book forms an extension of the first; from an exhibition in New York, up to the pandemic and lock-down.    Celia Paul writes like she paints – every word a carefully placed brush stroke.  I found myself endlessly fascinated by her descriptions of her flat opposite the British Museum which houses her studio and in which she still lives. Here she describes a painting:

“One is of my room at night: the shadows on the ceiling thrown by the streetlights forming a web above my bed, the cross-bar of the window magnified on the wall next to it, an eerie crucifix.  Everything is still.  The colours are rust, brackish-blue and gold.  In the painting of my room in the morning the gentle light washes in through the window, suggesting hope and peace.”

Those are commodities the world needs very badly at the moment.



‘Painting is the Language of Loss’: Self-Portrait by Celia Paul

This week, I have much enjoyed reading artist Celia Paul’s autobiography called, not unreasonably,  Self-Portrait.   The heading I have used for this post is a quote from her book and although the images of her work are necessarily grainy and poor (I was reading on my kindle) it is not hard to see where the statement comes from.    Her way of writing is engaging, intimate and totally honest and although I do not know her work as an artist I am delighted to have come across this book.

Celia Paul was born in India in 1959 before moving to England as a young child when an illness required her to be treated at Hammersmith hospital.    Her father was made Canon of Bristol Cathedral and later rose to become  Bishop of Bradford.   One of her sisters would go on to marry theologian and poet Rowan Williams who became Archbishop of Canterbury.

Celia was a devoted artist from childhood and was accepted aged 18 into The Slade Art school. Her bio says that she is considered one of the most important painters working in Britain today.  Her work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions in London, Chichester and New York.

My Mother with a Ring

Given all that therefore,  it is a great shame – and probably drives Celia Paul quietly mad – that she is best known for having had a relationship with a more famous (male) artist, Lucian Freud.   In this Paul shares similarities with another female artist Gwen John who became romantically embroiled with famed sculptor Auguste Rodin.  In fact so closely does Paul feel that her life aligns with that of Gwen John that her newest book Letters to Gwen John is just published and I have already downloaded it onto my kindle and started reading it.

Celia Paul is very honest about the challenges she has faced being a woman and an artist stating openly that she hopes that the book will speak to others who face the same obstacles.  It is nearly always women who are forced to make choices between artistic gifts  or other career choices – and caring responsibilities.

She writes:

“One of the main challenges I have faced as a woman artist is the conflict I feel about caring for someone, loving someone,  yet remaining dedicated to my art in an undivided way.  I think that generally men find it easier to be selfish.”


“I would like this book to speak to young women artists – and perhaps to all women – who will no doubt face this challenge in their lives at some time and will have to resolve this conflict in their own ways.  This seems to me to be an essentially feminine dilemma.”

And I think that those things that the author hopes for from this book will come to pass because her writing is powerful enough to remain the memory and convey the strength of her spirit.

Paul goes on to have a child by Freud.  They name him Frank after their artist friend Auerbach.  Frank will be raised by his grandmother to enable Paul to retain the silence and stillness she needs to work.

Lucian Freud bought her a pair of Java finches in a cage and a flat in Bloomsbury (in 1982) which she still occupies and which is her studio.   She writes that it overlooks the entrance to the British Museum.  And so if you are visiting the Museum,  look up when you leave the building at the building over the road.  Consider the 80 stairs which Celia’s mother used to climb regularly to sit for portraits.

Paul painted her mother and sisters constantly and refers to herself in the book not as a portrait painter but as “an autobiographer and a chronicler of my life and family.”



Story of a Life: A Novelistic Memoir by Konstantin Paustovsky

A Story of a Life, Konstantin Paustovsky

:  “… my generation was fated to experience enough wars, coups, trials, hopes, troubles and joys to last several generations of our forefathers. In the amount of time it takes Jupiter to orbit the sun, we had experienced so much that just thinking about it makes my heart ache.”

So writes Konstantin Paustovsky in his memoir The Story of a Life (1945,1946, 1955, 1957) (English Translation, Vintage Douglas Smith, 2022), a work which takes the reader from the author’s childhood in Ukraine at the turn of the 19th century,  through to the formation of the Soviet system, Paustovsky is likely to be the most famous Russian author you have never heard of.

This is not one single book, but three books in one volume written across decades: Book One, The Faraway Years, Book Two, Restless Youth and Book Three, The Dawn of an Uncertain Age.     There are three more books that have yet to be translated.  I hope it happens quickly because I am queueing up to read them.

This six part-memoir was originally published in the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1963.



Konstantin Georgievich Paustovsky was born in Moscow in 1892, he died in 1968 at the age of 76.   It is hard to exaggerate Paustovsky’s stature in the 1960s.  There is a story told in the introduction to the book that  Marlene Dietrich alighted from her plane in Moscow for a concert tour in June 1964.  Mobbed by reporters, she said: tell me all you know about Konstantin Paustovsky.  A few days later she gave a concert for a gathering of writers which – unknown to Dietrich –  Paustovsky attended.  At the end of the performance he slowly progressed to the stage to meet her.   This was only a few years before his death and the  author was very ill.  Writing in her memoir,  Dietrich recalled that she was so overcome with emotion she was unable to speak.  All she could do to express her admiration was to fall at his feet and bow her head.  There is a photograph of this online.

It’s hard to imagine any contemporary writer having that effect on anyone.

The first three volumes cover the author’s childhood which at first is happy but later disintegrates, leaving him alone to fend for himself from the age of 16.  As a young student at the gymnasium in Kiev in the late 19th century be begins his story which ranges through the collapse of the Romanov dynasty to the Russian revolution and the First World war.

Paustovsky spent time serving as a medical orderly on Russia’s frontlines  in WW1.     Paustovsky did not describe anything which he did not personally witness so there is no general history of the revolution or the world wars.  Not knowing who was whom in the revolution it could be hard to follow some parts of the writing,  but that must have been what it was like to live through it.

On several occasions Paustovsky comes close to being shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  When he describes these events what is striking is how little importance he seems to attach to who doing the shooting!  Perhaps at that stage it didn’t matter.   Each battle, each war, each faction, each gang as bad as another.

Although he was not as famous a dissident  as, say, Shalamov or Solzhenytsyn – unlike them Paustovsky managed to avoid the gulag.  But this did not mean he remained silent. Time and again the writer spoke out for artistic and intellectual freedom. He helped to publish the works of other writers and poets who fell foul of Stalin such as  Nadezhda Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova. Three times his name was put forward for the Swedish Academy for the Nobel Prize for Literature and three times the Swedish Academy backed down having been warned that this would be viewed by the soviet system as ‘provocation’.   Instead writers such as Boris Pasternak and Mikhail Sholokhov were seen as safer options.

The beauty of Paustovsky’s prose is startling.       It is only April and yet I know I will not read anything more outstanding than The Story of a Life, this year or possibly any other.  Thank you, thank you to the translator Douglas Smith without whose work I would never have been able to read this author.    I eagerly await the translation of the second set of three books


Nonfiction November Week 3: The Guild of Exhausted Embroiderers

Nonfiction November, as you know, is hosted by several bloggers, with Week 3: (November 15-19) – Be the expert/Ask the expert/Become the expert hosted by Veronica at The Thousand Book Project:


In week 3 we are asked to suggest three or more books on a subject of which we know something about, or put out a call for titles, or make our own list of titles on a particular nonfiction topic.

I don’t consider myself an expert at anything very much,  but many years ago I studied embroidery and collected a good many books on the subject which now lie dusty and abandoned on a shelf somewhere.  Most of them date back from the 1980s and so are perhaps dated in terms imagery.  But embroidery was always an historic art and while I was leafing through these books to write a post I found myself wondering how much has changed.

Back in those heady days, we embroiderers  were excited that our art had  grown up and left home, leaving behind  images of  neat little Victorian samplers forced upon bored children to indicate their awareness of the correct order of the letters of the alphabet;  more particularly, leaving behind the days of cheap (mostly female) labour when seamstresses would wreck their eyesight for fourteen hours a day earning a couple of shillings a week to applique complex designs onto (often male) robes of office.  This ending of this slave labour was, for society as a whole a Very Good Thing.  No more guild of exhausted embroiderers.

But still, embroidery had a hard time modernising.

It belonged to an earlier age of plentiful cheap labour and fought to elevate itself from ultra-skilled craft to art form.  By the time I became involved in the scene, in the 1980s, it was a punishingly expensive hobby which struggled to find a role (apart perhaps from quilting) amongst mainstream punters. It was fabulous fun to do of course but I was young,  had young children, needed to earn a living and life got in the way.  Back then, in order to learn goldwork, we used gold and silver thread – the real thing  – the cheap stuff never looked the same and broke easily.  Back then there were wonderful shops which supplied all the embroiderers needs which you could browse for hours and online didn’t exist.

Embroidery was an applied art form that required endless patience and the best eyesight to put a hawk to shame.    Those of my colleagues who were talented enough to try to sell their work (I wasn’t) could never hope to recoup their costs on a piece which required expensive materials and which they may have spent months working on.

True there was machine embroidery which produced pleasing modernist effects, but you couldn’t use a sewing machine to fix 10,000 sequins to the train of a royal wedding dress as the Emanuels did for Diana, Princess of Wales at her wedding to Prince Charles in 1981.  Considering we live in a modern and (hopefully for most of us) democratic age, embroidery is neither a modern nor a democratic art.  It is an ancient and historic art which requires thousands of hours of work by hand,  to which exposure for most of us is generally through a glass case at the V&A.  At one stage, the Royal School of Needlework in the UK was housed in Hampton Court Palace  – which said it all really.  For all I know it may still be there.

Someone who tried to change all this was a designer called Kaffe Fassett.   A sort of early days Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen, Fassett was everywhere during the 1980s and 1990s, on TV, writing books, teaching, demonstrating, rushing from pillar to post, trying to democratise the world of applied art.   His extraordinary sense of colour, collages, needlepoint, knitting – you name it – took the design world by storm.

This leads to my first week 3 book which is Fassett’s Glorious Interiors (1995).  Aptly titled, it shows  magpie worthy treasure troves of interiors, although perhaps a little innocent and artisanal.  But that was the whole point.    In the introduction to the book Fassett, who grew up in California,  writes:

“Ourside of our circle was, I knew a world where people had their houses ‘done’. I was very dismissive of grand, expensive, interiors because of the underlying feeling of nervousness lest one should make a mark on the new wallpaper, spill tea on the antique carpet, or break a rare porcealain.  There was, I recall, a sterile beigeness to the most expensive of these places that chilled me to the core.”

He credits his grandmother with developing his own ‘fantasy and fun’ aesthetic as well as travels to Europe and Morocco.

Within its sumptuous covers there were many fine photographs and instructions on exactly how to achieve the cushions, rag rugs,tufted carpet etc in your own home.  I would love to know how many people actually succeeded in copying one of these designs.  I personally had a yearning to attempt the turkey rag rug (shown below), but never plucked up the courage (pun, sorry).

  1. Turkey Rag Rug: An illustration from Kaffe Fassett’s Glorious Interiors (1995)

My next embroidery book is called The Embroiderer’s Garden by Thomasina Beck.   Very different from the turkeys, overblown roses, profusion of rioting colours in Fassett’s book, Beck’s inspiration comes from the well mannered topiary of the knot garden and the parterre;  the photographs in the book show the work of artists who have produced pieces based on original garden designs, some dating back to the l5th century.    Much like gardening itself, embroidery was ever the subject of heated discussions about whether it was ‘art’ or ‘craft’.  One of my favourite images from Beck’s book is ‘The Cold Frame’ a piece of contemporary stump work.  This is a technique which uses small pieces of padding beneath areas of stitching – which are then applied over the top –  to give a raised and three dimensional effect to the design.

Image is taken from a piece called ‘The Cold Frame’ by Barbara Hirst, in Thomasina Beck ‘The Embroiderers Garden’


My third and final book is The Art of the Needle (1988) by Jan Beaney.  The earliest of the three books,  Beaney was a name to conjure with in the embroidery world when I was studying (I’m sure she still is, but I’m not involved any more) and some of the design ideas now appear quite dated.   Beaney reminds us that its not just about the stitches, of course there are numerous effects that can be garnered from manipulating fabric such as by dying, printing and or quilting  before considering stitching.   Sensibly she advises us to match our fabrics to the proposed function of the item:

” If the article is to be worn and laundered, the material should be colourfast, washable and durable.”

Sounding not unlike Mrs. Beeton.

Embroidery is a massive subject with an entire history of its own; there are whole books – probably entire libraries of books –  given over to individual techniques such as Goldwork, Blackwork, Stumpwork, Crewelwork.

What are the latest books on this subject? Maybe there are textile artists and silk painters out there or someone who is just interested. I would love to know.