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Rigg's Cabinet of Curiosities

curated by Thornton Rigg

Quince, cabbage, melon & cucumber: Juan Sanchez Cotan

… intriguing still life … 

still life bodegón melon quince cucumber

Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, 1602, (San Diego Museum of Art) by Juan Sánchez Cotán (June 25, 1560 – September 8, 1627) was a Spanish painter, now famous for being a pioneer of a Spanish form of still life painting which is also called bodegón.

The Spanish term bodega is a pretty movable term and can mean pantry, grocery, or cellar. In Spanish art, a bodegón is a still life of food often arranged on a simple stone slab or sometimes in a kitchen. The quince and cabbage here show how food was often suspended to prolong its freshness rather than, as I first wondered, some sort of curious presentation technique. The simple images in Cotan’s work are often contrasted with the more opulent Northern European paintings of silverware and fresh flowers.

Soon after this was painted Cotán entered a Carthusian monastery and many historians have linked this spare representation to his later monastic and vegetarian life. However he painted bodegónes with dead animals including this one which is exactly the same arrangement with added dead birds: Still Life with Game Fowl, 1600/03, (the Art Institute of Chicago). Admittedly, the crowded alcove is not such a pleasing image.

spanish baroque still life

Talking about the first painting, Norman Bryson writes: “Absent from Cotán’s work is any conception of nourishment …”*  I agree that the clear light and the precise almost hyper realism of the food makes it less an appetising food stuff and more, perhaps to Cotán’s eyes, a wonder of God’s creation to be scientifically examined and recorded

Bryson also suggests: “What replaces their interest as sustenance is their interest as mathematical form.”* This seemed rather far fetched to me until, on rooting around a little, I found that the gradual curve has been compared to Archimedes’ hyperbola, suggesting that this painting could perhaps be understood as a geometric meditation for an educated class. Archimedes was first translated and published by the Italian Federico Commandino in 1565. This was followed by Luca Valerio’s De Centro Gravitatis in 1604 confirming a strong contemporary interest in spherical bodies that might be related to Cotán’s still-life experiments.**

Musing on spherical mathematics certainly isn’t my idea of fun, however it did remind me of another image, an intriguing miniature painted at the slightly earlier date of c1590-5 by Nicholas Hilliard of Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam).

Henry_percy_hi

Nicknamed “The Wizard Earl” because of his interest in scientific experiments and his library, here Northumberland is seen in a garden with a serious book at his side and a mathematical puzzle of a sphere and feather behind him. So perhaps fancy maths was a thing at the turn of C17th?

* Bryson, Norman (2012). Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting. London: Reaktion Books.

** Taken from Juan Sanchez de Cotán, Quince, Melon and Cucumber. Essay by Dr. Sally Hickson.

 

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Norman Nicholson : “unique & unjustly overlooked Cumbrian”

… a peck of poems …

lake district Lakes poetry

When the BBC marked the 100th anniversary of Norman Nicholson‘s birth in January 2014 with a radio programme,  their press release described him as “the unique and unjustly overlooked Cumbrian” and I guess the short radio documentary may have helped to raise his profile a little – though calling the programme “Provincial Pleasures” was, I feel, damning the man with faint praise.

Norman was championed by TS Eliot, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney though he remains little known because he chose to stay in the little town of Millom, Cumbria, on the western edges of the Lake District rather than move south to London.

Norman wrote a lovely meditative poem about his craft and about his middle name (which was also his mother’s maiden name) “Cornthwaite”. It comes from the Olde English “cweorn” meaning corn, and the Norse Viking “tveit” meaning a meadow or clearing.

“… I lop, / Chop and bill-hook at thickets and rankness of speech, / Straining to let light in, make space for a word, / To hack out once again my inherited thwaite / And sow my peck of poems, not much of a crop.”*

Norman Cornthwaite Nicholson, 8 January 1914 – 30 May 1987.

To learn more about him, you can visit the Norman Nicholson Society‘s website. The link is here.

*This poem was first published in his collection, Sea to the West,  Faber & Faber, 1981 and can be found in Collected Poems, Faber & Faber, 1994, pp.354 © The Trustees of the Estate of Norman Nicholson, by permission of David Higham Associates Limited

The British Countryside : Are you Rustic or Lyrical?

Another trend I’ve spotted from my favourites reviews of 2017 is the artists and writers’ response to nature.

basic nest architecture poems seren

Are we down in the terrifying muddy ditches of the Cumbrian badlands with Jacob Polley‘s sparkling poems about Jackself : “By head-lice powder, Paraquat / snapdragon’s snap and rat-tat-tat / who’s at the door / of the door of the door / it’s Jackself in his toadskin hat?” ? (Every Creeping Thing in Jackself : Jacob Polley.) And dying, sodden and foolish, from wearing Italian walking gear in a collection of ephemera created by Rebecca Chesney‘s Death by Denim. (Creating the Countryside : Compton Verney) ?

denim

Or are we celebrating the lyricism in nature along with Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane in their stunning The Lost Words – a beguiling mix of illuminated manuscript and spell grimoire? And reflecting how nature can enrich our lives with Alex Preston and Neil Gower in the delightful birder’s book As Kingfishers Catch Fire. ?

Of course it’s both – but the oscillation between the two sides I find do fascinating.

I am also intrigued to find that most of these meditations on nature are through illustration and poetry  – as if the elusive quality of our responses cannot be tied down in prose. As Polly Atkins writes: “All I can do / is believe you will keep on being the warm / vaulting life, ravelled round mine, / although I may never hold you.” (Rabbit in morning in Basic Nest Architecture)

Wishing you all a very happy New Year.

2017 : The Year of Grimdark Reading

… fighting, moral ambiguity, death – what’s not to like? …

I hadn’t really heard the term “grimdark” until a couple of years ago and, as a relatively new term the definition is still fairly flexible. Wikipedia currently has this:  Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction that is particularly dystopian, amoral or violent.  I guess what sets grimdark apart from horror is that the supernatural element can usually be controlled by characters or is treated as a force to be channelled by these characters rather than being some nameless inhuman horror.

Three of my favourite reads this year have been set squarely in the grimdark field: their protagonists are not very noble, their worlds are dystopian with dark forces at work and the deaths are generally gruesome.

Strangely enough I don’t like horror. Never read the stuff. So why did I enjoy these books?

After much thought I think it’s a combination of the pace, the unpredictability and the black humour of this genre I love so much. Looking back over my reviews, I use phrases such as: tremendous pacey thriller, a beguilingly flawed hero, exuberant story telling and enough twists amongst the battles and assassinations to keep the pages turning fast.

Two other favourite reads of 2017 could almost be grimdark for their flawed protagonists, black humour and dark forces.  The urban fantasy Corpselight by Angela Slatter with an excellent detective, Verity Fassbinder, set in Brisbane and the Young Adult novel, The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilin which will be out next year. It is a delicious mixture of folklore, fantasy and horror.

Godblind by Anna Stephens was published by Harper Voyager in June 2017 in the UK. My review can be read here and her twitter account is @AnnaSmithWrites

Blackwing by Ed McDonald was published in July 2017 by Gollancz in the UK. My full review is here. Ed’s very entertaining blog is here It includes some great posts on writing and the publishing journey. And longsword technique. He is on twitter @EdMcDonaldTFK

Godsgrave by Jay Kristoff was published by HarperVoyager in September 2017.  My review is here. For further information on Jay, his website is here. His twitter feed is fun to follow @misterkristoff

Corpse Light by Angela Slatter was published by Jo Fletcher Books in July 2017. My full review can be read here and her twitter account is @AngelaSlatter 

The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilin will be published by David Fickling Books in March 2018. My review is here and his twitter account is @TheCallYA 

As Kingfishers Catch Fire : Alex Preston & Neil Gower

… deep joy from looking up and writing down …

birds kingfishers poetry

A gem like collection of reminiscence, poetry, description and birding facts, Alex Preston has teamed up with the brilliant graphic artist Neil Gower to produce a wonderfully engaging commonplace book – perfect for Winter reading and musing.

In 21 chapters from Peregrine to Nightingale, Alex weaves his personal history around a wide ranging collection of poetry and descriptions of birds. Each chapter is illuminated by Neil’s art. Their enthusiasm spills over into some delightfully discursive end notes and beautifully designed end papers. If you like Robert Macfarlane‘s works such as The Old Ways this is definitely for you.

As Alex says in his introduction : “This book is, above all, a history of the deep joy that comes from looking up and writing down.”

Highly recommended.

Alex Preston is an award-winning novelist. He writes for magazines as well as monthly fiction reviews for the Observer. He is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Kent. He is @ahmpreston on Twitter.

Over the past 30 years Neil Gower‘s clients have included most major publishing houses in the UK & US. He spent 10 years as Contributing Artist to Conde Nast Traveler in New York. He runs a delightfully engaging website which includes his background notes to creating this book here. Neil can also be found on twitter here.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire was published by corsair, an imprint of Little, Brown on 13 July 2017 and is my twentieth review for the British Books Challenge 2017.

The Invasion : Peadar O’Guilin

… addictive mix of wild savagery and messy emotions …

young adult fantasy

Peadar is a master of combining thrilling horror with thoughtful characterisation, creating an addictive mix of wild savagery and messy human emotions. As with The Call, he drives The Invasion‘s plot forwards at a tremendous pace whilst adding just the right amount of intimate scenes for the reader to become very attached to his cast – an incredibly difficult balancing act to achieve. I guess it’s something to do with his Irish folklore heritage.

Peadar’s mixture of horror and tragedy is highlighted by the deformed S’dhe animals made up of tortured humans including the centaurs apologising as they scythe through people and, my particular favourite, the tiny winged Fr Ambrosio who craves eyeballs.

The Invasion‘s story is spread across three different viewpoints: between Ness, the main character in The Call, her boyfriend, Anto, and Aoife, a student from their Boyle Survival College. I was keen to find out how he could make their predicament even worse than the first book. Well, Peadar doubles the pressure by making the beleaguered government believe Ness to be a S’dhe spy.  They lock her up in prison research establishment whilst sending her beloved Anto to the front line of the Sidhe invasion. Can Ness use her S’dhe given powers to defeat the invasion and be reunited with her beloved Anto? The plot races to a satisfying final battle and conclusion.

With his tightly written story telling and deft characterisation, Peader is one of the finest YA novelists around. The Call was on the shortlist for The Bookseller’s YA Book Prize 2017. My review of it is here. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Highly recommended.

Notice: The horrors are truly disturbing and there’s a little discreet sex so this book is definitely a Young Adult rather than a Pre-Teen choice.

Cover design moment:  The striking cover is by the award winning Blacksheep design team. It’s not black! HURRAH. Proving images can be sinister and intriguing with being black. Further details of their work can be found here.

The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilin will be published by David Fickling Books in March 2018.

Basic Nest Architecture : Polly Atkins

… haunting evocations of nature …

basic nest architecture poems seren

This haunting collection makes me pause and remember that the poetry I love is just like good architecture. Polly creates the scaffolding of an idea and then she leaves enough space between the words to allow my thoughts to hang around her ideas and then flow out and into that indefinable space of imagination.

I particularly liked the poems of her magical encounters with wild animals : rabbit, fox and deer which reminded  of Rilke‘s Unicorn Sonnet; and her Jack Daw description which, like Robert Macfarlane, seems to conjure the bird alive.

Other more lengthy reviews can be found on the publisher’s website here.

Highly recommended.

Polly Atkin lives in Cumbria. Her debut poetry pamphlet bone song (Clitheroe: Aussteiger, 2008) was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award, 2009. Her second poetry pamphlet Shadow Dispatches (Seren, 2013) won the Mslexia Pamphlet Prize, 2012. In 2014 an extract from Basic Nest Architecture was awarded New Writing North’s Andrew Waterhouse Prize. Polly has taught English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University and the Universities of Strathclyde and Cumbria.

Cover design moment:  The amazing cover features a still life of an exploded nest and bird parts by the wonderful Mary Jo Hoffman. She posts photographs of natural objects found usually around Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota, on her website here. I am so glad I have discovered her site!

Added 20/11 Polly says: “The powers of the internet! I was looking for images that tied together bodies, nests & a sense of structure & found her …” When asked whether she had designed the whole thing, she said that Seren were ” … definitely responsible for putting it together so beautifully though & bringing the egg pattern into the lettering. Great design work!” All of this was via a Twitter exchange I had with Polly @pollyrowena

Basic Nest Architecture by Polly Atkin was published by the Welsh independent Seren Press on 27 February 2017 and I bought in from the lovely Artworks, gallery and shop, in Aberdyfi. If you are in the area the shop is well worth a browse.

This is my nineteenth review for the British Books Challenge 2017.

 

Quentin Blake : Inside Stories : Compton Verney

… full of inspiration, creativity and generosity …

quentin blake compton verney exhibition illustration

This exuberant exhibition is full of inspiration, creativity and positively glows with Quentin Blake‘s joie-de-vivre and generosity of spirit.

It features a huge range of finished illustrations, working drawings and crossed out snippets showing his process including sketches for Roald Dahl’s The Twits, BFG and Matilda, The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams, and his tremendous series of illustrations to accompany Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. (And the outline Rosen emailed to his publisher entitled: Is this a Book?)

The show includes over 140 original works, as well as some of his artists tools and a couple of short films in which Quentin demonstrates his techniques.

Excellent. Couldn’t stop smiling all the way round.

The exhibition runs until 17 December 2017 (Tue – Fri 11am – 4pm; Weekends – 11am – 5pm) and is definitely worth a visit. The marvellous The Lost Words exhibition is running at the same time. If you haven’t been to Compton Verney before, I urge you to go.   The exhibition space, permanent exhibitions and park are a delight and make a great day out for both art fiends, nature lovers and families.  There’s a lovely cafe, an adventure playground for children, and boardwalks and pond dipping around the lake.  Click here to be directed to their website.

Quentin Blake: Inside Stories is a touring exhibition from the brilliant House of Illustration. This charity, based in London, is the UK’s only public gallery dedicated to illustration and the graphic arts was founded by Sir Quentin Blake in 2014. To learn more about their splendid work visit their website here.

Illustration © Quentin Blake

The Lost Words : Compton Verney

… artwork for the stunning book …

robert macfarlane jackie morris

A delightful exhibition to accompany the launch of this wonderful book, the rooms are full of Jackie‘s stunning artwork and Robert‘s delightful poems.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the full page “absence” watercolours – especially for conker  – as their lyrical beauty is slightly muted in the finished book by the inclusion of the alphabet.

Compton Verney‘s curators have once again created an enchanting space for the art to shine with thoughtful backdrops of colour and illustration inspired by the art and the occasional school desk of bird books for children to browse.

The exhibition runs until 17 December 2017 (Tue – Fri 11am – 4pm; Weekends – 11am – 5pm) and is definitely worth a visit. If you haven’t been to Compton Verney before, I urge you to go.   The exhibition space, permanent exhibitions and park are a delight and make a great day out for both art fiends, nature lovers and families.  There’s a lovely cafe, an adventure playground for children, and boardwalks and pond dipping around the lake.  Click here to be directed to their website.

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