Visions Of Johanna

America after the Fall – Royal Academy

The other major exhibition at the Royal Academy in the first half of 2017 was, in many ways, a counterweight to the Russian Revolutionary art – Lenin makes an appearance in a painting by Louis Guglielmi – is an exploration of American art in the 1930s, the years of the Great Depression. A small exhibition, consisting of some forty-five paintings, it is comfortably housed in three rooms in the Sackler Wing. What it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality.

I managed to catch the exhibition on a boiling hot day, in those slack times at the RA when its existing shows are winding down and all its energies are concentrated on preparing for the Summer Exhibition. Despite the rather strange atmosphere, I thoroughly enjoyed the show. After all, it’s my kind of art – representational art, colourful and telling a story.

When someone mentions Thirties America to me, I immediately think of the dust bowl and the devastation that injudicious agricultural methods combined with soil erosion and winds caused in the mid-West. I found Alexandre Hogue’s Erosion 2  – Mother Earth Laid Bare hugely evocative with the plough in the foreground and the farm in the distance and in the centre bare, devastated earth moulded into a supine woman. Grant Wood’s earlier and more famous American Gothic, painted in 1930, which has never left North America before, picks up on the theme. We have a couple of elderly farmers standing in front of a rural church, anxiously staring out at us. There isn’t an ounce of flesh on them and the pitchfork, held like a trident, is both menacing and a sign that this is their only hope of salvation.

Wood was a bit of a find for me. I liked his rather grim portrayal of three daughters of the Revolution – no oil paintings, they – primly sipping a cup of tea in front of a picture of the founding fathers. His aerial view of Paul Revere’s ride to tell the news that the Brits was on their way was full of stylised energy.

Edward Hopper’s Gas shows a petrol station in the middle of nowhere. It is both a forlorn symbol of despair but also one of hope. Someone at some time must come down the road wanting to fill up. The show’s opener by Charles Green Shaw is astonishing. It is a painting of a city skyline with skyscrapers reduced to basic geometric form but almost god-like in the sky is an enormous packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum. Is this the deus ex machina which will lead America to salvation?

Inevitably, race makes an appearance. R W Johnson’s Street Life, Harlem shows a youthful black, urban couple, dressed to the nines. The colours are vivid and the shapes bold. Benton’s Cotton Pickers is more disturbing under closer scrutiny. In the foreground is an emaciated child and a bony woman offers succour to a man working on his knees. The American Hanging is more disturbing too, showing a noose, a group of Ku Klux Klan and a naked African-American woman in the foreground.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Life went on and there are pictures of people having fun and attending picture shows. Paul Cadmus’ The Fleet’s In is a riot of colour and louche behaviour. It caused such a stir when it was first shown that the Navy ordered its withdrawal.

A wonderful show without any makeweights and one worth braving the heat for.

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Thirty Seven


The Roxburghe Club

Unlike many of the clubs we have looked at, this one is still going but it is dashed difficult to get into – membership was restricted to just 40 from 1839 and from its inception in 1812 until the present day there have been 348 in all. Members are elected but just one black ball is enough to kiss your chances goodbye. An early resolution encapsulated the ostensible purpose of the club; “it was proposed and concluded for each member of the Club to reprint a scarce piece of ancient lore, to be given to members, one copy being on vellum for the chairman, and only as many copies as members”. The club also published some volumes collectively.

The sale of the library of the Duke of Roxburghe in 1812 sent the bibliophiles in England all of a twitter. The library was so extensive that the sale lasted some 41 days, Sundays excepted (natch). The crown jewel of the collection was a rare copy of Il Decamerone di Boccaccio which fetched the prodigious sum of £2,260, purchased by the Marquis of Blandford. To celebrate this momentous occasion the Reverend Thomas Frognall Dibdin suggested a dinner to be held at the St Alban’s Tavern in what is now Waterloo Place on 17th June 1812. This was the genesis of the club with some 24 worthies attending. Dibdin was appointed secretary and Lord Spencer was the President.

The club was itinerant meeting at Grillion’s, the Clarendon and the Albion taverns as well as St Alban’s and the members were clearly trenchermen. At the fourth dinner, at Grillion’s, under the chairmanship of Sir Mark Masterman Sykes, twenty members sat down and ate their way through a dinner which cost £2 17 shillings a head and demolished £33 worth of booze. This was a paltry effort compared with events at the 1818 dinner. Just fifteen sat down at the Albion in Aldersgate Street, near the Barbican, under the chairmanship of Mr Heber and ate and drank their way through £85 9 shillings and sixpence worth of food and drink.

As one Mr Haslewood wrote of the assembled company, “no unfamished liveryman would desire better dishes, or high-tasted courtier better wines” – I should think so at those prices. “With men that meet to commune, that can converse, and each willing to give and receive information, more could not be wanting to promote well-tempered conviviality; a social compound of mirth, wit and wisdom”.

With so much booze to consume, it was inevitable that there would be numerous toasts to honour, all reflecting their love for books. The opening toast was to the immortal memory of John Roxburghe, followed by one to Christopher Valdarfer, printer of the Decameron in 1471, and then to the inventors of printing and William Caxton, the father of the British press. Many more printing luminaries were toasted before ending with hopes for the prosperity of the Roxburghe Club and the cause of bibliomania throughout the world. Their hopes were well-founded as the club still exists today, receiving its first female member, Mary, Viscountess Eccles, in 1985. Barry Humphries aka Dame Edna Everage is a member, number 344 on the roll.

Books are still published and circulation is limited to 342, 42 for the Club and three hundred for general sale. They are of astonishing quality with lavish bindings and command an appropriate price. The Roxburghe is acknowledged as the first club of bibliphiles and was the model for many others. Books, food and drink – what could be better?

A Measure Of Things – Part Four


Measuring smells

What is mildly astonishing about smells is that in the vernacular there is no obvious means of measuring and comparing them. After all, we are surrounded by smells, some pleasant and appealing like the scent of a flower or a perfume whilst others are grossly offensive like body odour and farts. On encountering a pungent odour we register against some scale deep in our subconscious but I was hard pressed, before digging into the subject, to name a scale which gave some comparatives with which we can judge and contrast what has just hit our nostrils.

A Danish environmental scientist, P.O.Fanger, has done some work on the subject. In 1988 he came up with a unit of measure, the olf. One olf is the odour given off by a standard person, defined as someone in a sedentary occupation who takes 0.7 baths a day and has a skin surface of 1.8 square metres. I’m not sure I have considered the size of my skin surface or, indeed, anyone else’s but as I’m above the average size, vertically if not in profile, I suspect I’m slightly above that. As an Englishman I don’t bathe but have a daily shower so my cleanliness is a bit above Fanger’s standard so I’m in a bit of quandary as to whether I emit one standard olf or not. A heavy smoker, though, emits 25 olfs and an athlete, presumably after their exertions, a whopping 30 olfs.

Fanger wasn’t finished there. He came up with a decipol which he used to measure perceived air quality. A decipol is the perceived air quality in a space where there is one olf ventilated by 10 litres of unpolluted air a second. I’m not sure this is any more useful than the olf but I might just go around from time to time muttering, “just feel the decipols in this place”.

I’m not a great fan of talk shows on the radio but there are some hosts who go beyond the usual platitudinous fare and are able to riff on even the most mundane subject in an amusing and occasionally instructive way. Danny Baker is always worth a listen, I find, and one of his equivalents over the pond is Adam Corolla and his sidekick, Dr Drew, who hosted a show called Lovelines. He developed a scale called Hobo Power which ran from 0 to 100 and a standard feature on the show consisted of callers ringing in with the latest shocker of an olfactory experience and they would determine where it fitted on the scale.

A scale of sorts soon emerged. Zero meant that it didn’t whiff at all whereas the top score of 100, which has never been awarded, would result in immediate asphyxiation. A robust fart rated 13 whereas a 30 would induce someone who caught a whiff to vomit. Corolla described a smell meriting a 50 on the scale as akin to a cat that has been fed on nothing but blue cheese for a week defecating on a white-hot hibachi, a Japanese fire box.

For those who like a more scientific approach to the measurement of smells, two enterprising students from Cornell University, Robert Clain and Miguel Salas, developed a fart detector using a sensitive hydrogen sulphide monitor, a thermometer and a microphone with accompanying software. The machine would rate stench, temperature and sound – apparently, the warmer the fart, the wider it spreads – and a voice would rate it using a scale running from zero to nine. A nifty feature was that if the fart ranked a nine, a fan would switch itself on and dissipate the smell. The drawback was that unless you recruited a professional flatulist, testing was a bit haphazard which is probably why it never developed beyond a good idea.

Pumpkin Update (8)

It’s a while since I reported on my pumpkin seeds. Well, beware the false prophets of the seed packet is all I can say. “Plant in pots and within 5 to 7 days, seeds will germinate,” the packet said. After a week, what did I have? Nada. After a couple of weeks or so, a couple deigned to pop their head above the surface and are now flourishing. A third made an appearance, some five weeks after sowing.

Perhaps they are victims of climate change. After all, they are Snowman pumpkins.

Horticultural News Of The Week

I always think that the wedding of Pippa Middleton marks the beginning of the English society season. Hang on, I’ve got that wrong – I meant the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. But, alas, not everything in the undergrowth is flourishing.

This year’s event only featured eight show gardens, down from fourteen last year, as sponsors wilted under the pressures of economic uncertainty and the ever-spiralling costs of supporting the prima-donna gardeners’ extravagant attempts at what is essentially a simple operation – putting a few plants together to make a pleasing arrangement. Even the show’s main sponsor, M&G, have announced that they upping sticks and seeking pastures new in 2018.

Mind you, if the box-tree moth gets settled in here, there won’t be much in the way of hedging to provide shape to the exhibits. I have only just got over the attack of box blight that devastated Monty Don’s box hedges last year and now, I learned this week, there is another pest anxious to rid us of our buxus sempervirens. The moth lays its eggs on the underside of box leaves and the hatchlings, hairy, black caterpillars, munch their way through the host tree’s foliage at a prodigious rate. The moths are spreading through south east England faster than any previous pest. If you see one, you know what to do.

I go to Halesowen quite often but have never made it to nearby Uffmoor Wood which boasts a fine collection of bluebells. A missed opportunity it would seem as our old friends, the Woodland Trust, have taken the unprecedented step of closing it to the public, after a spate of problems including excessive dog fouling, attacks on pets and farm animals, drug dealing and dogging. The dog poo wars continue.