Tuesday, 3 December 2019

A CHRISTMAS TALE


Here's all about my new book, Joseph and the Three Gifts: An Angel’s Story...


It was, quite simply, a gift – a Christmas gift – given to me in Venice in the festival days of last December. I was in that ancient and beautiful city, long known by the grandiloquent title of La Serenissima, in order to celebrate Christmas and New Year and, between whiles, to work on a book about Venice.

This was not a commission and, like many professional writers, the book I wanted to write (but for which I did not yet have a publisher) kept being postponed in favour of writing for bread. There are, of course, more than enough books about Venice already and mine was – and remains – a potentially difficult project to sell since it is neither a guidebook nor a history, art or cookbook but, rather, a collection of essays about people, places, themes and ideas.

Anyway, I had, to my great pleasure, succeeded in writing one or two new pieces when another idea came my way, suddenly and unbidden, elbowing the Venice book aside and insistently demanding to be considered. It all began in one of the great churches of Venice, the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (more simply known as The Frari), celebrated for housing the monumental tomb of Antonio Canova and Titian’s ecstatic ‘Assumption of the Virgin’.

Every Christmas, the Frari displays a large-scale Christmas diorama of a Bethlehem village jam-packed with houses, inns, shops, wells and watermills with a cast of automata people and animals. Lighting effects continually transform the scene from day to night and back again to an accompanying soundtrack of sacred music. Finding the Holy Family was, at first, a challenge among the vista of blacksmiths hammering at their forges, potters hunched over their wheels, bread-makers busy at their ovens, children fishing in the stream and housewives hanging out their washing.

Then I saw them: Mary gently rocking her newborn baby and, every few minutes, rising to her feet to hold out the Christ Child for the adoration of a couple of kneeling shepherds. Just behind her, stood Joseph; unlike the animated Mary, he was simply an immobile figure from a nativity set – in attendance, but absolutely not the focus of attention.

This triggered a recollection, from a few weeks earlier, of a visit to an exhibition devoted to the work of Edward Burne-Jones, where I had sat for some time contemplating his elaborate tapestry, The Adoration of the Magi. Once again, Joseph was there – in the picture – but over to one side, approaching the stable with a bunch of kindling and bowing his head in awe before the glorious brilliance of a mid-air angel and the dazzling splendour of the three distinguished visitors.


These two experiences fidgeted in my brain until, one still and sleepless Venetian night, they formed themselves into a series of questions: why doesn’t Joseph figure more prominently in the story in the nativity – always present, even singled out with a halo to indicate his holiness – but for ever a marginal figure, glimpsed on the side-lines, left in the shadow cast by the radiance and wonder of the Incarnation.

What sort of man was he, this Joseph? What was it in the character of this humble carpenter from Nazareth that led to his being chosen as foster-father to the Son of God? What was his reaction to the discovery that his fiancé was pregnant and how did he cope with the inevitable shame and embarrassment? And, having endured that dishonour, how did he handle the many mysterious events attending that Nativity with which we are all so universally familiar from the greatest masterpieces of art down to the cards, carols and cribs of our annual Christmastides?

What were Joseph’s feelings observing the inexplicable adoration of shepherds and Magi? And what did he make of those three curious, portentous gifts that the Wise Men from the East laid at the feet of his wife and child?

And, very specifically, whatever became of those gifts? Even as I wrote down these and the other questions that were teeming through my brain, I was surprised to find a series of answers – or, at least, possible answers – bubbling to the surface of my mind, provided by someone who was intimately involved with the events of the first Christmas and who witnessed the following thirty-something years that eventually led to the passion and glory of Easter –– the Archangel Gabriel. Once this unexpected Venetian Christmas gift had been given, all that was left to do was to listen to the angel and write the story down.

Joseph and The Three Gifts: An Angel’s Story with decorations by Henry Martin is published in hardback by Darton, Longman & Todd, priced £9.99 

And here's an interview with me in this week's edition of The Church Times...


 
 

Photo of Brian Sibley by David Weeks

Monday, 19 August 2019

HIM AND ME...

Photo: © Tobias M. Eckrich 2019 

At Tolkien 2019, were David and I were guests (as sorcerer and speaker respectively), we met the brilliant photographer Tobias Eckrich, who, on the evening of the Tolkien Society's banquet (celebrating 50 years of their existence), made a series of portraits of us as a duo... 

They are, we think, rather fine...

 Photo: © Tobias M. Eckrich 2019 

Photo: © Tobias M. Eckrich 2019 

Photo: © Tobias M. Eckrich 2019

Very man thanks, Tobias, for a great gift to us!

[P.S.: After marvelling at David's jacket and waistcoat – don't miss the snazzy shoes!]


All photos © Tobias M. Eckrich 201

tobias.m.eckrich@tolkiengesellschaft.de

Monday, 15 April 2019

LAMENTATION POUR NOTRE DAME

Francois Guillot / AFP / Getty

Writing in Notre-Dame de Paris in 1831, Victor Hugo described this incredible building, the central character of his monumental Gothic novel, in these words...

Each face, each stone of the venerable monument, is a page not only of the history of the country, but of the history of science and art as well. Thus, in order to indicate here only the principal details, while the little Red Door almost attains to the limits of the Gothic delicacy of the fifteenth century, the pillars of the nave, by their size and weight, go back to the Carlovingian Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. One would suppose that six centuries separated these pillars from that door. There is no one, not even the hermetics, who does not find in the symbols of the grand portal a satisfactory compendium of their science, of which the Church of Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie was so complete a hieroglyph. Thus, the Roman abbey, the philosophers’ church, the Gothic art, Saxon art, the heavy, round pillar, which recalls Gregory VII., the hermetic symbolism, with which Nicolas Flamel played the prelude to Luther, papal unity, schism, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie – all are mingled, combined, amalgamated in Notre-Dame. This central mother church is, among the ancient churches of Paris, a sort of chimera; it has the head of one, the limbs of another, the haunches of another, something of all

We repeat it, these hybrid constructions are not the least interesting for the artist, for the antiquarian, for the historian. They make one feel to what a degree architecture is a primitive thing, by demonstrating (what is also demonstrated by the cyclopean vestiges, the pyramids of Egypt, the gigantic Hindoo pagodas) that the greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society; rather the offspring of a nation’s effort, than the inspired flash of a man of genius; the deposit left by a whole people; the heaps accumulated by centuries; the residue of successive evaporations of human society,—in a word, species of formations. Each wave of time contributes its alluvium, each race deposits its layer on the monument, each individual brings his stone. Thus do the beavers, thus do the bees, thus do men. The great symbol of architecture, Babel, is a hive. 

Great edifices, like great mountains, are the work of centuries. Art often undergoes a transformation while they are pending, pendent opera interrupta; they proceed quietly in accordance with the transformed art. The new art takes the monument where it finds it, incrusts itself there, assimilates it to itself, develops it according to its fancy, and finishes it if it can. The thing is accomplished without trouble, without effort, without reaction – following a natural and tranquil law. It is a graft which shoots up, a sap which circulates, a vegetation which starts forth anew. Certainly there is matter here for many large volumes, and often the universal history of humanity in the successive engrafting of many arts at many levels, upon the same monument. The man, the artist, the individual, is effaced in these great masses, which lack the name of their author; human intelligence is there summed up and totalised. 

Time is the architect, the nation is the builder.
Francois Guillot / AFP / Getty

Geoffrey Van Der Hasselt / AFP / Getty

Saturday, 6 April 2019

THE ART OF ICE

A sensational exhibition is currently on show at Chris Beetles Gallery in London.

The works on view (and for sale) feature a stunning array of paintings by Nicholas Romeril celebrating his recent expedition to Antarctica aboard HMS Protector as Artist-in-Residence for the Friends of the Scott Polar Institute.


Breaking Ice, Antarctica is a collection of paintings ranging in size from vast canvases to small, sketch-book dimensions, all of which capture the breathtaking beauty of the region of our world where ever-changing vistas of snow-swathed volcanic peaks and blue-and-white ice-scapes are relentlessly re-sculpted by the forces of wind and water.

Romeril's mastery of subject and medium is astonishing: capturing the awesome immensity of Antartica's icebergs, the vast expanses of sea and sky and the dramatic play of light, shadow and reflections. The results, individually and collectively, are achingly beautiful: their sense of an eternal meditative silence offering a rare cooling and calming gift for our frenzied age.




Gallery Opening Times:
Monday - Saturday, 10am - 5.30pm

Getting to us car, tube, train or bus:
There is pay and display parking on St James's Square.

The closest tube stations are Piccadilly Circus (on the Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines) and Green Park (on the Jubilee, Piccadilly and Victoria lines).

The closest train stations are Charing Cross (15 min. walk approximately) and Victoria (25 min. walk approximately). Taxis can normally be found outside the stations and there are buses to Piccadilly from both stations.

Friday, 29 March 2019

B-DAY!



Today was supposed to be the day you have either dreaded or, possibly, longed to see dawn... 

Amid all the frantic flounderings, the purblind stupidity, the hysterical xenophobia, the weather-vane politics, the unbelievable mendacity and the despicable self-seeking hypocrisy comes a searing satire featuring ––– rabbits! 

Yes, you heard correctly: rabbits! 
 
During a six-month residency at London's House of Illustration, Taiwanese artist and graduate of the Royal College of Art, YiMiao Shih, satirises current affairs through drawing, video and embroidery.

Her latest work – on exhibition from today – has created a parallel universe in which the United Kingdom has voted not for 'Brexit', but for 'Rabbrexit': the final expulsion of rabbits from this sceptred isle, this other Eden, demi-paradise etc., etc...

For Rabbrexit MeansRabbrexit, YiMiao Shih has created a collection of ‘relics’ from the UK’s imaginary rabbit population, including large-scale embroidered epics, newly minted 52p and 48p coins and aeroplane landing cards and flight accessories for rabbits stripped of their British citizenship – among them Mr. W. Rabbit (Country of birth: Wonderland), Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny & Co., and the celebrated rabbits of Sandleford Warren.

As the gallery press-release puts it: "These satirical pieces draw together Shih’s real-world observations of the nationalistic fervour, economic uncertainty and fragmentation of societal bonds brought about by Brexit." Or, as I would put it – having visited the exhibit following a day on which we heard the death rattle of national sanity – it is a glorious and much-needed laugh in the gathering dark...

 

 









LANDING CARDS and IMMIGRATION OFFICER NOTES









 






In addition to Rabbrexit Means Rabbrexit, House of Illustration currently has exhibitions devoted to the illustrative work of Ludwig Bemelmans (creator of 'Madeline') and Corita Kent – pop artist, social activist and nun! 

Photos: David Weeks and Brian Sibley

Opening Times:
Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5.30pm, (last entry 5pm)
Sunday 11am-5.30pm (last entry 5pm)
Closed Monday
Open late on the first Friday of every month 10am-9pm (last entry 8.30pm)

Current and Future exhibitions...

Exhibition Dates:
Quentin Blake Gallery
- Ludwig Bemelmans: Sketches for Madeline open until 28 April
- Gallery closed 19 April - 7 May
- Quentin Blake: From the Studio open from 8 May
Main Gallery
- Corita Kent: Power Up open until 12 May
- Gallery closed 13 - 23 May
- Posy Simmonds: A Retrospective open 24 May - 15 September
- Gallery closed 16 - 26 September
- Cold War Cuba: Graphics for Solidarity open 27 September 2019 - 19 January 2020
South Gallery
- Journeys Drawn: Illustration from the Refugee Crisis open until 24 March
- Gallery closed 25 - 28 March
- YiMiao Shih: Rabbrexit Means Rabbrexit open 29 March - 14 July
- Gallery closed 15 -18 July
- Marie Neurath: Picturing Science open 19 July - 3 November
- Gallery closed 4 - 7 November
- W.E.B. Du Bois: Activism by Numbers open 8 November 2019 - 1 March 2020

Ticket Prices:

With gift aid Without gift aid
Adult £8.25 £7.50
Concession: student, jobseeker, disabled (free entry for accompanying carers) £5.50 £5
Over 65 £7.15 £6.50
Child: aged 5-18 (free entry for under 5s) £4.40 £4
Family: up to 2 adults and 3 children £19.80 £18
First Friday: 5.30-9pm first Friday of the month £5.50 £5
National Art Pass: 50% discount on full-price adult ticket  £4.15 £3.75
Friends: unlimited free entry Free Free




And here's how to find House of Illustration!


Sunday, 17 March 2019

BEETLEMANIA!

Chris Beetles Gallery, my favourite selling art gallery, has just had a website face-lift making its extraordinarily diverse stock of artworks more tantalizingly accessible to the the online gallery-goer.

Former doctor, watercolour expert, past and present collector, Chris Beetles is an idiosyncratic dealer in English watercolours, illustrations, cartoons, photography and oils. In a profile, a few years ago, Renaissance: The Fine Art Collector, wrote: "If you want to buy a beautiful 19th century Edward Lear watercolour, an original Quentin Blake from a classic Roald Dahl book, an up-to-date Matt cartoon from the Daily Telegraph or a stunning Norman Parkinson photograph from the pages of Vogue, then this is the place to visit with everything just 'waiting in the wings'. It is virtually impossible to enter this venerable, approachable and reassuringly British gallery without adding to your collection. This also makes it the perfect place to start one…"

As a regular visitor (in real and virtual time) to Chris' gallery – and as a sometime (very modest) collector – I have, for many years, enjoyed the opportunity to discover more about the joys of many aspects of art and, in particular, those that are almost universally ignored by our great art institutions and, indeed, most commercial galleries too: illustration art, cartoons and caricatures. 

At Beetles' London gallery – 10 Ryder Street in the heart of  St James’s – I have met the aforementioned Quentin Blake, fellow illustrators Michael Foreman, Helen Oxenbury, John Burningham and others and enjoyed brilliant exhibitions either devoted to the work of specific artists or, in his legendary annual Illustrators blockbuster where an astonishing variety of graphic artists are hung shoulder to shoulder among them Mervyn Peake, Ronald Searle, Rowland Emett, Mabel Lucy Atwell, Arthur Rackham, Charles and William Heath Robinson, Eric Fraser, Al Hirschfeld, Lawson Wood, George and Eileen Soper, Edward Ardizzone, Norman Thelwell and Louis Wain.

The rejuvenated gallery website allows the visitor to browse its extensive collection by artist A to Z or by area of interest from 'Victorian' to 'American', from 'Cartoons' to 'Decorative Arts', 'Prints and Etchings' to 'Literary Manuscripts' or, in these days of Brexit uncertainty, 'Early English' to 'European'!

You can explore the current exhibitions featuring the vibrant paintings of Geraldine Girvan and a bicentennial celebration of the work of John Ruskin, reflecting on the work of artists who either helped him hone his aesthetic and skills or who received his praise and support.

Enthusiasts can also create a 'My Beetles Wall', a personal exhibition space on which to display your favourite exhibits.

I won't keep you further from your exploration of the delights in store, but I will just encourage you further to visit with a handful of fantastic images currently available to pursue or maybe, depending on your bank balance, take home to hang on your wall!

 Arthur Rackham

 Al Hirschfeld

 William Heath Robinson


Lesley Anne Ivory

 Edward Ardizzone

 Kathleen Hale

Eric Fraser

 Lawson Wood

 Michael Foreman


George Soper

 Mervyn Peake

 Paul Cox

Ronald Searle

E. H. Shepard


You can also visit Chris Beetles Gallery in person (Monday - Saturday, 10am - 5.30pm) at: 

8 & 10 Ryder Street, 
St James’s, 
London 
SW1Y 6QB