Jenny Uglow’s most recent book is The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh.
 (April 2014)

The Shame and Pride of Empire

Thomas Barker: <em>The Secret of England’s Greatness</em>, circa 1863

It’s brave of Tate Britain to mount an exhibition called Artist and Empire when we are constantly mumbling apologies for Britain’s imperial past—for wars and slavery, exploitation and looting, religious and cultural oppression. Not that this show is a celebration. By its own account it is rather an attempt to show how artists have responded to the history and ethos of empire over the last five centuries, and to address its legacy.

The Revolutionary Christian Girl

Edith Heckstall Smith: <i>The Match Girl</i>, circa 1884–1890
Toward the start of his fascinating book The Match Girl and the Heiress, Seth Koven states that it “joins efforts by historians to reclaim pre–World War II Britain for Christianity, a salutary historiographical Reconquista.” This may set alarm bells ringing, with its implication that more secular-minded scholars should be driven …

A Charmer in the Trenches

E.H. Shepard, 1917; the caption reads,

E.H. Shepard was already drawing with passion as a child, fascinated by two subjects, soldiers and the theatre—both of which would mingle, oddly, in his wartime work. I had pigeonholed Shepard as the genius who illustrated Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows. Yet an intriguing exhibition of Shepard’s World War I drawings at the House of Illustration, London, show an officer with his sketchbook in the trenches.

Liotard: The Unexpected Likeness

Jean-Étienne Liotard: <em>Liotard Laughing (self-portrait)</em>, circa 1770

It’s two weeks now since I saw the remarkable show of Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789), yet I’m still puzzling over the nature of the Swiss-French painter’s charm and strength. For all his showmanship, Liotard’s greatest art, as Walpole said, was in catching a likeness; and in grasping the fleeting moment, he casts us too back in time.

Modern, English and Strange

Eric Ravilious: <em>Dangerous Work at Low Tide</em>, 1940

I’m heading to the Dulwich Picture Gallery to see an exhibition of the work of Eric Ravilious, who, though little known abroad, is one of the most distinctive British artists of the 1930s and 1940s. The adjective “English” applies to much of Ravilious’s subject matter and his affiliations, but not to his style or atmosphere.

Here Comes Waterloo!

Elizabeth Butler: <em>Scotland for Ever!</em>, 1881 (click images to enlarge)

There’s some irony in celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the British defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, given Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum within two years to decide if Britain should leave the European Union. Nevertheless, Britain has got Waterloo fever.

Goya Takes Flight

Francisco Goya: <em>Nightmare</em> (detail) 1819-1823

I was faintly apprehensive when I clambered up the curving staircase of the Courtauld Gallery to see “Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album.” But as soon as I was face to face with his powerful, irreverent sketches, I was both horrified and entranced. The small dancing figures linger in my eye. Once seen, never forgotten.

William Blake: Wonderful and Strange

William Blake: <em>Nebuchadnezzar</em>, 1795

Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum has always been a place of surprises, which has made it an absolutely fitting place for “William Blake: Apprentice and Master,” an exhibition that is at once didactic and very strange. The exhibition left me dazed by the technical detail but aware that I would never look at a Blake work in the same way again.

A Grande Dame in Close-Up

Museum visitors with Bronzino's <em>An Allegory with Venus and Cupid</em>,
circa 1545, in Frederick Wiseman's documentary <em>National Gallery</em>, 2014

In Frederick Wiseman’s brilliant new three-hour documentary on the National Gallery in London, we may learn about Caravaggio, Rembrandt, or Vermeer, about Holbein and Henry VIII, about the ethos of the Counter-Reformation or Titian’s use of poesia. But we learn almost more about the varied ways that art can be brought to life today.

Turner at Twilight

J.M.W. Turner: <em>War: The Exile and the Rock Limpet</em>, 1842

At sixty, Turner was both admired and ridiculed, his work leaving critics and spectators baffled and sometimes angry. Many saw his shimmering canvases as a crazed denial of familiar rules. Was his eyesight failing? Was he going mad? Tate Britain’s Late Turner: Painting Set Free is a fittingly autumnal show. Seeing the exhibition with Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner is like watching a strange, exhilarating conversation.

A Seemingly Virtuous Monster

Engraving of Sabrina Bicknell at age seventy-five by Richard James Lane, after a portrait by Stephen Poyntz Denning, 1833; painting of Thomas Day by Joseph Wright, 1770
Wendy Moore has written an account of a crazed attempt by the eighteenth-century poet and philosopher Thomas Day to educate two foundling girls, so that one might become the ideal wife. Her book reads at times like a historical novel. Yet it is underpinned by meticulous research, and raises a …

The Saga of the Flaming Zucchini

Pierre Bonnard: <i>Lunch at Grand-Lemps</i>, 1899
Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat combines a passionate gathering of information, diligently communicated, and an amused realism that brings us safely down to earth. Tirelessly, Wilson narrates many instances of scientists and engineers, often in cahoots with big business, setting out to solve kitchen problems, especially in inventing modern labor-saving devices like beaters and blenders. “What tulips were to Holland in the 1630s and Internet startups were to Seattle in the 1990s, eggbeaters were to the East Coast of the United States in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s,” Wilson says.</p

A Revolutionary Among the Stars

Nicolaus Copernicus with his model of the heliocentric universe
Dava Sobel has carved a niche for herself as a writer who employs narrative and biography to present archaic and complicated theories in an engaging and accessible manner. After making her name as an award-winning science reporter for The New York Times, she published Longitude, her first book in this …

The Glittering Nest

‘Miss Prattle Consulting Doctor Double Fee About Her Pantheon Head Dress,’ 1772; from the chapter ‘The Dressing Room’ in Bill Bryson’s <i>A Short History of Private Life</i>
We may dream that our attics hold treasure but usually the dusty rooftop spaces are crammed only with cobwebs. Bill Bryson, however, chasing “the source of a slow but mysterious drip” in the old Victorian rectory where he lives, came face to face with a hidden door. This led out …

The Other Side of Science

One pleasure of reading Steven Shapin on the history of science is that he rarely walks in a straight line. He approaches his subjects indirectly, creeping up on a topic through a thicket of examples, quotations, or questions, only to make a sudden turn, revealing a vista so unexpected that …

Romantic Scientists

An 1830 caricature of the medical uses of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, the euphoric effects of which were first investigated in 1799 by Humphry Davy
When the brilliant twenty-year-old chemist Humphry Davy discovered the potency of nitrous oxide, “laughing gas,” at the recently founded Pneumatic Institution in Bristol in April 1799, he inhaled the new mind-altering substance himself, and shared it with his friends. These included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, already, in his mid-twenties, hiding a …