Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum
by James Delbourgo
When the first visitors entered the newly opened British Museum in Montagu House in Bloomsbury in January 1759, they walked past a stone from the Appian Way, the skeleton of a unicorn fish, and a buffalo head from Newfoundland. Beneath their feet were pillars from the Giant’s Causeway in County …
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 …
How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate
by Wendy Moore
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 …
Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat
by Bee Wilson
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
The gripping and dramatic show “All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life” merits its title: it is “all too human” in the tender, painful works that form its core. But “a century of painting life” promises something wider—does it smack of marketing, a lure to bring people in? In fact, the heart of the show is narrower and more interesting, illustrating the competing and overlapping streams of painterly obsession in London in the second half of the twentieth century. It shows us how, in their different ways, painters such as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach, R.B. Kitaj and Paula Rego redefined realism.
Why do mirrors appear so often in Victorian paintings? “Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites” suggests an answer. Often, the artists ask us to see the image they are “reflecting on”—whether it be from a poem or from domestic life, like the father with his arms outstretched in Ford Madox Brown’s Take your Son, Sir! (1851–1857), left brutally unfinished when his small son died. And, of course, as we stand before the pictures, a real rather than painted mirror would reflect ourselves, the viewers, the audience. Bending back the painted light, the mirror reminds us of our presence as witnesses.
The exhibition “Journeys with ‘The Waste Land’” tries, perhaps too hard, to embrace the poem’s multiplicity. This does not altogether work. There’s an air of clutter, of packing too much in, of a lack of direction that leaves visitors baffled. The clue to the problem lies in the exhibition’s slippery subtitle, “A visual response to T.S. Eliot’s poem.” The show, it turns out, is not the response of artists, but of the group itself. Some artworks here respond directly to The Waste Land, others to Eliot and Modernism more generally. Many more are included simply to conjure moods and themes.
These sensual images, with curving shoulders, breasts, and thighs outlined in black, with clever references to both old masters and contemporary styles, were a bald commercial venture. But these nudes overcome the cynical appeal to a male gaze. Their bodies are idealized, smooth shapes of sex, but their faces are those of individual women: some gaze out frankly, or peer teasingly, from beneath long lashes; others close their eyes or let their heads loll wearily, as if bored with the whole affair. It is as though Modigliani himself found peace in their calm stillness, away from his fevered life, away from the mass death and ravages of the war.
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 “not just in public monuments, but in social structures, culture and in the fault lines of contemporary global politics.”