31 March 2012

At least we don't have to panic buy nostalgia, it's free

I am somewhat taken aback by the current spate of panic buying: petrol, stamps and pasties. I understand the stamps one best, I guess, as buying stamps that are designated 1st and 2nd class (rather than a specified amount of money) will save you money when postage is hiked at the end of the month.

But none of this stuff is actually life-essential, and I'm beginning to wonder if queuing and shortages haven't become part of the nation's vision of the past, and we consequently feel the need to revisit them now and again (I'm thinking here of the sugar and bread shortages of the 1970s, for example).

You don't have to ask whether the British are nostalgic - we make an industry of it. It's one of the things we do best, and pretty much always have, from at least the days of the Tudors and Stuarts getting misty-eyed about Arthurian times. Brits also dearly love a bargain, even if it isn't one: I doubt I'll ever forget seeing a sales assistant barely escape unscathed from the scavenging mob after she'd pushed a trolley of rather indifferent-looking reduced items into the central area of a local M&S branch. She judged it prudent to flee without attempting to arrange them on the racks, for which you could scarcely blame her.

A lot of Brits also have a liking for hoarding household stuff (one reason why so few people use their garages, if they have them, to contain their cars). The relative who could have run a cleaning products market stall with the contents of hers, and the former colleague whose caravan was lined with loo roll, are probably not untypical. So stock up now, folks - it's our heritage!

13 March 2012

The Picture What I Did Not Buy

Yesterday I did something I'd not done for quite a while - I went to a pre-sale viewing for an auction. Chiswick Auctions had used this painting of a child to publicise the fact that in future their online catalogue would have a photographic image to accompany every lot, and the painting itself was in this week's sale. While I'd quite like a fiver for every child portrait I've ever looked at in the course of my museum work, this one struck me as unusual.

The gender of the child, for one thing: to the modern eye, this is clearly a female, what with the dress, the curls and the floral wreath, but I rather think this is a boy, remembering that boys under the age of five or six wore dresses at this date, and taking into account the bare knees, the shortness of the garment and the slightly tousled hair. What's more, I think it may even be an American boy. The neckline/ dress construction is one I associate with American portraits, and it has the clarity of colours characteristic of many of the American naive artists. Then the wreath is bound with ribbons apparently inscribed with the names of characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet, for no very obvious reason - unless this child's name is also Hamlet?

I'd say the portrait is early nineteenth century, 1805 or so, but it was hard to tell, as it is no longer in original condition, having been cleaned and re-lined - which is why in the end I decided not to bid for it. It was fun going and looking, though, especially to see all the other toot, I mean lots, in the sale: plenty of large and ornate pieces of furniture, including three partner desks; a stuffed pheasant (allegedly); boxes made to look like enormous books; a collection of repro dolls in da-glo sateens and gold braid; and a table whose top had been made from a framed sampler, as you do...

(photos by Keith Marshall)

05 March 2012

What did you sing at school?

I nearly typed that as "What did you sing at school, Dad?" My father died many years ago, but I expect his answer would be "Much the same as you did at junior school" - lots of hymns, folk songs and popular/ traditional stuff. You know the sort of thing, to be found in books like 'Songs That Will Live Forever', a 1930s compilation (by Maurice Jacobson) that an elderly lady passed on to me the best part of half a century ago: The Ash Grove, Frere Jacques, What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor, John Peel...except that by great good luck there was some much more unexpected stuff as well.

I remember the arrival of an inspirational music teacher, Russell Farman, at my school when I was about nine. He gathered up a choir by the painless method of getting us all to sing something in unison and walking round listening to us, played us lots of Vaughan Williams' music, and was keen on early music too. The Christmas carol repertoire got an injection of pieces like Lullay Myn Liking, The Angel Gabriel, and A Virgin Unspotted, though the first year infants continued to sing Away in a Manger excruciatingly flat every year, but that's traditional, after all.

I was actually prompted to think about all this because in the last few days I've heard two pieces on the radio that I remember singing at Grammar School, and haven't heard since. The first was Thomas Campion's Never Weather-Beaten Sail (1613), the second was Bach's Magnificat (Et Exultavit Spiritus Meus) - and anyone would be forgiven for thinking that whoever chose those for school use was out of their tiny mind, especially the Bach, which was for class singing (boggle).

In fact I enjoyed singing the Campion, and it's remained a favourite piece of mine. It was for the house choirs to sing in competition at our school's annual arts fest, so no more than about ten or twelve voices to each group and it's quite simple, despite being a bit esoteric (not to say a tad morbid, to modern ears). The Bach, on the other hand, is showy, taxing, and for solo female voice - couldn't be less appropriate, really. I listened to it being professionally performed in astonished silence that we had managed to get even part of the way through it!