Blogging down one’s thoughts can sometimes end in bogging them down. Political events, ideological disagreements, rants, apologies, defensive screeds and coverage of techno launches, political scandals and general media excitements have often been the meat, drink, potatoes, peanuts and popcorn of my blogging space, which is fine and well and high and dandy and adorable in its own way (one hopes) but it leaves little time for dilating on the subjects which really move and enliven me. So here is the first of a series of blogulosities in which I try and share a personal delight.
I shall begin with a passion that has been with me since … well, since I was young enough to look and wonder I suppose. Like many of my generation I was made a prisoner for life from an early age by the remarkable Ernst Gombrich, whose The Story of Art Pocket Edition is probably responsible for opening more eyes to painting and sculpture than any other book published in the English language. If you aren’t familiar with it, I am not sure there is any work I could recommend more highly. If you are on a Gombrich spree you might like also to get hold of his A Little History of the World, which will make you and any children you have handy writhe, ripple and froth with pleasure.
Since reading The Story of Art I have loved looking at pictures. At school I took History of Art (or ‘history o fart’ as I would write on my exercise books because I was exceedingly sophisticated and amusing) for A level and did seriously consider the subject for a degree either at one of the universities or perhaps the Courtauld Institute. The Courtauld, if you don’t know it, has a spectacular and woefully undersung gallery at Somerset House in London, which houses stunning impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, as well as owning perhaps the best art image collection in the world, the Witt Library.
When I was seventeen, on the run from the police and in possession of someone else’s credit cards (don’t ask, you’ll have to read Moab is My Washpot or The Fry Chronicles to know more. Many sensible people acquire both books and find that good luck and bedroom success attends them for ever afterwards. That may be a coincidence, but it seems unlikely) I would, pompous twazzock that I was, perch myself on a barstool in the American Bar of the Ritz Hotel and converse with the barman there, who happened to be an enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable amateur art historian. His bible was the three volume The economics of taste: The rise and fall of picture prices, 1760-1960 by Gerald Reitlinger and he would mix my Old Fashioneds, show me slides of paintings (he kept an enormous collection under the bar counter along with his maraschino cherries, orgeat and swizzle sticks) and preach the gospel of Reitlinger.
Looking at pictures
To stand in front of an artwork can cause bursts of excitement and surges of pleasure and thumps of intense feeling that are not unlike those an adolescent experiences when glimpsing someone who stirs desire in them. It pleases me that every year more and more people go into art galleries and museums to look at collections or special exhibitions. All over the country we are spectacularly blessed. Places that show photographs, sculptures, decorative objects, textiles, porcelain and paintings exist in almost every major town and city in Britain. Many are free and almost all offer good discounts for those who most need them.
For any of you plagued by memories of having to troop listlessly after your parents or school group leader as you were shepherded from one masterpiece to another and forced to listen to well-meaning but often confusing, stultifying or irrelevant explanations and interpretations from tour-guides and experts, I have nothing but sympathy. We have all been there. If that has put you off galleries and exhibitions in later life then you have the unimaginable pleasure ahead of discovering what it is like to look at pictures in your own time, at your own speed, just as you please. The beauty of art galleries when you are no longer in a tourist group or family is that you don’t have to go “round” – you can pop in to see just one room, or even just one painting. There are no rules and no “correct” way to look.