Lovely to look at & read – Part One

I’ve borrowed some beautiful books from my library lately & I wanted to share some of them with you. They’re all books I’ve been dipping in to rather than reading from cover to cover so, rather than not review them at all, I thought I’d write some mini reviews to encourage you to buy them or suggest them for purchase at your library.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland is the story of an amazing project that was thought up by Alexander McCall Smith after he saw the Prestonpans Tapestry, created to commemorate a battle of 1745. Why not create a tapestry that would tell the story of Scotland’s history? He contacted the artist, Andrew Crummy & the project was born. More than 1,000 stitchers from all over Scotland were involved in stitching the 165 panels telling the story of Scotland from the creation of the landmass 11,000 years ago to the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. Andrew Crummy’s designs for the panels are so beautiful & he left spaces that he hoped would be filled in by the stitchers as they worked. They certainly did fill in those spaces, often with their initials or the name of their group. The panels resemble the Bayeux Tapestry or the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages with animals, plants & motifs in the borders. I have so many favourites, it’s hard to just choose a few. St Margaret of Scotland, Haakon’s fleet at Kyleakin, Skye (I love the way the figures echo the poses of the Lewis Chessmen), Robert Carey’s ride to Edinburgh to bring James VI the news of Elizabeth’s death, the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715 with the armies chasing each other in a huge circle, Henry Raeburn’s Skating Minister, the Forth Bridge, the Herring Girls of the Hebrides & the Isbister Sisters of Shetland.

If you read Cornflower’s blog, you’ll know that she was one of the stitchers of the WWI panel. You can read more about her involvement here. There’s also more information about the Tapestry & where you can see it as it’s touring Scotland this year here. You can see some of the panels there (although the site’s incredibly slow to load). I’d hoped that more of the panels would be on the website but I suppose they want you to buy the book!

Betty Churcher is a well-known writer on Australian art & was the Director of the National Gallery for many years. Now in her 80s, she has published a series of Notebooks, of which this is the latest. She has visited most of the State Galleries in Australia, visiting her favourite paintings & sketching details of them. As she says, having a pencil in your hand makes you slow down & really observe details.

Churcher is a keen observer of the detail in a work of art & the sad fact that she has lost the sight on one eye, only seems to make her more observant. This is one of the most famous paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria, The Banquet of Cleopatra by Tiepolo.  The sketch on the left catches the expression on the face of the slave standing behind Cleopatra as he realises that she is about to drop a priceless pearl into her glass of wine. You can see the painting much better here.
Other artists featured include Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, Cezanne, Lucian Freud &, one of my favourites, wonderful Grace Cossington-Smith, whose painting, a portrait of the artist’s sister, The Sock Knitter, is on the cover. Apart from the fascinating content, this is a beautifully produced book. It’s shaped like a notebook & has a notebook’s flexible cover & creamy pages.

Bloomsbury is an endlessly fascinating subject & The Bloomsbury Cookbook by Jans Ondaatje Rolls concentrates on the domestic lives of the artists & writers known as the Bloomsberries. The author has told the story of Bloomsbury in a way that gives a different perspective on them. As Anne Chisholm, biographer of Frances Partridge, writes in her Foreward,

Jans Ondaatje Rolls has indeed found a way to cast new light onto Bloomsbury, not by yet again re-examining their personal or professional lives, but by walking into their kitchens and dining rooms, unearthing their cookbooks, trying out their recipes (even the less tempting ones) and, above all, by immersing herself in their writings and paintings.

Anne Chisholm also mentions that she’s working on a new edition of Carrington’s letters, which is very exciting as the only other edition, edited by David Garnett, was published in 1971 & is long out of print. Something to look forward to.

The book is full of beautiful reproductions of paintings by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant & Carrington, photos & sketches of everyone from Virginia Woolf to Lytton Strachey. There are extracts from letters, diaries &, most fascinating of all, are the recipes. The pages above show Interior with Housemaid by Vanessa Bell (1939) & opposite it, recipes for Eccles cakes & Veal Schnitzel with Mushrooms. As well as using the recipe notebooks of the Bloomsberries, there are also descriptions of similar recipes from cookbooks of the day as well as descriptions of the restaurants they visited at home & abroad & the meals they ate there. Virginia’s fraught relationships with her servants are described through trenchant quotes from her diaries & there are the social changes that led to Frances Partridge becoming a very good cook after the war when cooks were hard to find. The Bloomsbury Cookbook is published by Thames & Hudson, so it goes without saying that it’s beautifully produced & just a joy to look at.

I have some more gorgeous books on the way to me at work so Part Two of this post will be along soon.

Henrietta Sees It Through – Joyce Dennys

I think Bloomsbury’s idea of reprinting 20th century middlebrow classics recommended by readers is terrific. The first half dozen books were published last year & my favourite was Joyce Dennys’ Henrietta’s War. First published in The Sketch, Henrietta’s War is a series of letters written by Henrietta to her childhood friend, Robert, who’s away fighting. Henrietta tells Robert about life on the Home Front in her village in Devon. She’s a doctor’s wife with two grown up children. The letters are funny, poignant, dramatic & ironic. They paint a picture of middle-class life during WWII. The letters were only collected in book form in the 1980s & it was thanks to the recommendation of Cornflower, who writes one of my favourite blogs, that Henrietta’s War was republished last year.

Now, the sequel, Henrietta Sees It Through, has been published. It’s 1943 & the rationing, shortages, bombing & general stress of worrying about loved ones are beginning to take a toll on Henrietta & her friends. But, the keynote of these books is their humour which I’m sure is what made them so popular when they were first published. Henrietta takes up weeding her garden with a vengeance & plays the triangle in her local orchestra,

In triangle playing, if you have only three Pings in a whole movement, and each Ping is separated from the next by at least eighty bars, and you aren’t very good at reading music anyway, it is extremely difficult to Come In at the Right Time. The Conductor was sitting with his head in his hands, apparently weeping, by the time we had gone through the movement twice. After that I threw my music on the floor and trusted to Womanly Intuition and Memory. After the Double Bass had played three loud zooming notes I Pinged once; when one of the cellos turned round and gave me a Look, I Pinged a second time; and at the bit where little Mrs Simpkins began playing in flats instead of sharps, I Pinged for the third and last time. This was correct. The Conductor said ‘Good, Triangle!’ and was I proud?

I sympathised with Henrietta & her dear friend, Lady B, when patriotism demands that they sacrifice old kettles & watering cans to the Metal Dump for salvage. But, it’s the Paper Dump that causes the most anguish,

We looked at each other with concern, for Lady B loves her books, and when she gave up her house and moved into her tiny flat they were the only luxury she allowed herself to take with her. We tiptoed round to the other side of our tin mountain, and there she was, tight-lipped, throwing one precious volume after another onto the Paper Dump. I saw her beloved Trollopes hurtling through the air, followed by the Shaws, and as each old and valued friend landed with a melancholy plop on the sacrificial altar, Lady B muttered, ‘Damn Hitler!’

Some things haven’t changed. Henrietta & her husband, Charles, go shopping in their Cathedral city & find the traffic appalling & the off-hand service in the shops infuriating. Henrietta’s glamorous friend, Faith, settles down & marries The Conductor. George, a handsome American soldier, brings a touch of glamour to the village & the book ends with a wonderful party to celebrate VE Day.

The letters have the charm of the everyday carrying on in a time of war, the stiff upper lip attitude that has become symbolic of the Home Front during WWII. I know not everyone was as patriotic as Henrietta & her friends. Marghanita Laski’s book, To Bed With Grand Music, is an illustration of a more selfish attitude to the war & its opportunities. But, I love reading about the Home Front. I admire the fortitude of the people who lived through such dangerous times & were willing to sacrifice their pleasures for the greater good. Their make-do-and-mend philosophy has a lot to recommend it. Henrietta’s ability to see the funny side of any situation & laugh at herself & her friends make these two books a joy to read & reread.