Archive for April, 2016

Delacroix Days

April 28, 2016


The picture at the head of this piece is of a postcard I brought back from Paris, it must be ten years ago. A self-portrait by Eugène Delacroix, a man well aware of his own dudosity. So what joy it is that there should be such a fantastic show at the National Gallery not only celebrating the man’s work but also his role as the inspiration to the next generation of painters. Men (for the most part alas) whose celebrity outstrips his own in contemporary times. It’s good to have him placed front and centre, for another month at least, in what is a wonderful show.

What perplexed me was that although Delacroix’s diaries are referred to in both the catalogue and the labels there isn’t a copy on sale in the NG shop – surely an opportunity has been missed! The reason I was looking for a new copy was that I had mislaid my pocket-sized edition published by Phaidon, one of a series of written classic works by artists and writers of which I have tried to obtain a full set.* Well, they had plenty of stuff by other people but nothing by the lad himself. A shame.

I won’t describe at length the wonders within the exhibition as there’s still plenty of time for people to go and look for themselves. But I will pick out a plum that explains why it is a must-see thing. One of my favourite pieces of Delacroix’s is that of Christ Sleeping During the Storm. To my mind it works as a metaphor for stoicism – the apostles fret, the storm rages, land is in sight, Christ takes a nap. Patience and faith (which work for both the secular and religious among us I think) are the keys to wending a way through the storms of life.

It’s a painting I’ve seen in the NG before but the difference as it is hung now is that it’s shown beside a Redon of a similar subject. Redon is an artist with whom I’m relatively unfamiliar and what I’ve seen of his hasn’t particularly appealed – that hot, over hot, splurge of sexual-psychological anxiety associated with the fin de siècle is not to my taste. But with his response to Delacroix he kind of clicked for me.

Redon removes the tempestuous drama that Delacroix the romantic puts into his composition and makes the scene more transcendental. Nature for Redon is not threatening the sailors. Neither is God. It’s the bare unforgiving sun in the sky and the isolation of the boat, the loneliness of the scene that come across. No land in sight, a ship cast adrift under a godless sky. It shows the shift from a Romantic to a modern sensibility.  From an appreciation of the beauty and danger of nature, and of human nature, to a turning inward of the mind. And each of the works is beautiful. It’s not the only time this kind of juxtaposition works in the show, it happens time and time again.

But there are two things that I would say that you don’t get from the show but that do become apparent from a trip to Paris.

The Delaxroix Museum comes as part of a ticket for the Louvre and is well worth visiting as a warm up act for the main event.


The house is where Delacroix lived and worked in Paris with a beautiful little garden laid out as he would have had it. 


Perfect for a pause in a busy day. I was interested by a display about Delacroix’s time in London. I hadn’t realised that he’d been to England (to my embarrassment, what kind of a London guide am I?). It had always puzzled me as to why his house was decorated with a replica of a Lapith v Centaur duel from the Parthenon Sculptures at the BM. Now I knew. Delacroix visited the British Museum in the company of his English friend, Thales Fielding.** The NG exhibition goes to town (rightly) on how significant Delacroix’s visit to Morocco was for his art but curiously for a British institution omits any lengthy reference to the impact of London on his art. Which is a shame.


In the Musée D they have a couple of beautiful watercolours done by the artist of tombs in Westminster Abbey. In the picture above you can see the replica of the BM panel and to the left the portraits of one another that Fielding and Delacroix made during his stay in London. It’s a joy to visit the studio as it shows you the intimate side of Delacroix that comes across in prose in his diary but which is missing both from the NG show and from the place that we went to next, the Louvre.

In the Louvre you have the big beasts. Sardanapalus, The Massacre at Chios, Les Femmes d’Alger. At the NG they have sketches and versions of these canvases but it’s not quite like seeing the real thing. Especially Sardanapalus which is a twisted mash up of sex, violence and soft furnishings. And of course then there’s Liberty Leading the People.*** Not even a sketch of this in London. And you do have to see it because in the flesh it is breathtaking and Important with a capital ‘I’ like no other painting of the nineteenth century. Politically revolutionary from an artist who otherwise I don’t see as overtly political. 

And this is missing from the NG’s thesis in London. Yes, Delacroix hands on a new sense of nature to Monet and Renoir, orientalism to Bazille and the rest but I wanted the politics that Manet picks up and makes such a big part of his work. Doesn’t Liberty have as a descendant the National’s own Emperor Maximilian? 

So go to the National for flowers, North Africa, nature and God. But then, if you’re lucky enough to have the time and the means, go to the Louvre for the politics.


And Murat. I don’t normally take photographs of paintings but I just couldn’t resist Joachim Murat in peach jodhpurs atop a tiger-skin saddle. 

* Yes, I know that’s what the internet is for! But if I’m buying for pleasure and not for work I prefer to go book-hunting myself and use serendipity as my guide. So after leaving the NG the first time I went to see Delacroix I first ransacked all the bookshops in Piccaddilly – ooh, isn’t there a Phaidon shop ON Piccadilly? No, of course not, that shut years ago. Then up Charing Cross Road, no luck. Up to Bloomsbury for a last chuck of the dice in Skoob and Judd Street. But then I thought of the second hand section in Waterstone’s Gower Street and (marvels!) not only did they have the book they had it in a fat French edition (£15) by Plon that is just a thing of wonder (‘un monument unique’ it says on the back and they’re not wrong). I plan to progress in a stately fashion through its pages but also ransack it at random for quotes about various shit that I’m interested in, and paintings/artists too.

** I read a column in The Spectator last week bemoaning outlandish modern names. As if this shit hasn’t been going on for years. I mean, Thales?!

*** There’s a really good In Our Time podcast on it on the BBC, well worth tracking down.

Russia and the Arts at the NPG 

April 26, 2016

I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts about Delacroix in the light of the amazing show at the National Gallery but there’s too much to say about him and I need to let it digest. Everyone should see this show before it closes in a month or so’s time – if you have to choose between Delaxroix at the NG and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (i.e. The gardening exhibition) at the RA it’s a no brainier. Delacroix wins with a smackdown.

In the meantime I can also heartily recommend (with one reservation, which I’ll come to anon) the Russia and the Arts exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

Why?

Well, for a start you’re unlikely to see any of these paintings again unless you brave a trip to Putinland, and you’re certainly not going to see them all together like this. They’re from a collection drawn up over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by an art lover who wanted to develop a gallery of portraits of contemporary Great Russians.

So we have a kaleidoscope of  writers, artists, muses, actors, composers and impresarios, all interesting both biographically and artistically. The crowds formed around the globally famous big beasts, especially Tchaikovsky, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. But my attention was drawn by two less well known figures.

The first was a portrait of a man who is described in my notebook as ‘Marmontov (opera guy)’. A work by Vrobel, of whom I’d never heard before, apparently both sitter and artist were tricky characters. Marmontov was a pretty demanding boss and Vrobel had a messy personal life. The alchemy of them working together produced something special. Vrobel is definitely not a portraitist of the cap-doffing variety. He’s produced a bonk-eyed proto-Cubist masterpiece of anti-lickspittlery that portrays his patron as a midget tyrant with a paradoxically fugitive aspect. It’s compelling.

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As is Repin’s portrait of Mussorgsky. Now Mussorgsky is someone I had heard of – Pictures is rarely off my playlist, especially the version by Leif Øve Andsnes. The portrait though is compelling for a different reason to that of Marmontov. Repin half-painted it while Mussorgsky was on his deathbed, having consumed booze on a Herculean (even by Russian standards) scale. The reason he wasn’t able to finish it was that when he went back the next day his subject had died.

But I think that makes it all the more interesting as a portrait. We get the raw initial reaction of Repin rather than a considered, finished piece of work. Frankly, Mussorgsky looks fucked. His stature is of Orson Wellesian proportions, wild haired but not wild eyed. Rather he stares with a watery blankness that still hints at the utterly raw genius of his music. And underscores the tragedy of the fact that he died too young at just 42 years of age.

On a personal note it struck brief disquiet in my heart to consider that I’m 42 myself, although (fingers crossed) in considerably better shape. But the disquiet comes from knowing that I am highly unlikely to produce one thing that has a smidgeon of the genius of Pictures. Yet, even if I can’t produce great art I can at least recognise it and take pleasure in it in those snatches of time between the too tedious mundanity of much of life.

I exited the gallery and raised a slightly guilty glass to Modest, I’m sure he would have approved.*

* One thing I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have approved of was his music being piped through speakers into the rooms of the exhibition, reducing his works to badly amped Muzak for the English middle classes. What creative genius at the NPG thought this would be a Good Thing I have no idea but I would strongly urge them not to do it again.

Review #40 Ohba Leaf, Crouch End

April 24, 2016

In Crouch End for a friend’s 40th we thought it wise to lay in some ballast before the festivities began. Since the opening of the two cinemas on Tottenham Lane this end of Crouch End has been re-energised on the dining front with a myriad of (to me) new options from which to choose. A good thing.

Early Saturday evening and Ohba Leaf was already beginning to fill up, which was a good sign. As was the number of takeaways flying out the door, turnover always being desirable in the land of sushi. The menu is standard Japanese fare – sushi/sashimi/rolls ramen/teriyaki/curry. My point of comparison would be Shoryu Ramen and OLeaf easily matches their standard for food and service.

We went for a few dumplings and soft shell crab to kick off. The crab was beautifully light in a ginger sauce while the dumplings were satisfyingly sticky prawn gobbets. The main of spicy ramen wasn’t quite as spicy as I would have liked it but had a good helping of seafood and no egg. Which I guess for most people would be a problem but as I don’t like egg it was a blessing for me! A big bottle of Asahi to wash it down and I was set for a Kiwi knees up.

8/10

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

Review #39 Vagenende, Paris

April 23, 2016

In Paris for a Delacroix day we were looking for somewhere to eat in the vicinity of his former gaff in Saint Germain before strolling across the river to look at the big stuff in the Louvre. I had happened upon Ian Nairn’s guide to Paris in the library the day before and brought it along for the ride. Nairn (in 1968) recommends Vagenende as epitomising the difference between artistic and arty and having shrunk from the tourist traps of Flore and Les DM we were happy to follow his advice and call in for lunch.

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Nairn’s review from 1968

The plain exterior gives no hint of the wonders within. A beautifully preserved Belle Epoque room with original art on the walls, golden hued mirrors and the same gramophone player described by Nairn  behind the counter. The room has the same formal yet lived-in feel of Rowley’s in Jermyn Street but is less masculine and has more room. We got a table for two that would have four squeezed onto it in central London.

Service is classic French – formal and attentive, just the way I like it. Bread and water arrived while we were perusing the menu. Fish features big at the V so after a warm up of endive salad and pâté de campagne we went for mains of cod pie and pike. I was expecting standard brasserie food but this was at another level. The cod pie was in fact a beautifully crustless fishy soufflé-ish mixture in a garlicky broth. The pike on the other hand (which I feared would be a bony beast) turned out to be two quenelles of eggy baked yum in a thick sauce that was served at the table from a saucepan that looked straight out of a Chardin still life.

Conversation was aided by a very reasonably priced bottle of red (just over €20) and as lunch developed the large room began to reverberate to the hum of happy eaters. The clientèle seemed a mix of well-heeled locals and a smattering of fellow visitors. After a couple of good coffees we stumbled back onto the streets of Paris a hundred euros down but very, very happy fellers.

9/10

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

Review #38 Pizza Express, Kings Road

April 20, 2016

Aagh, so I broke the rule. But when I went to PExpress in Russell Square I’d forgotten that I’d booked tickets to see a friend’s band (Evening Standards) at the Pheasantry. After all, one mustn’t let down a friend eh?

And the Pheasantry is a distinct enough venue to differentiate it from your average high street pizza venue. One time home to a ballet school run by Princess Serafina Astifieva (who trained both Alicia Markova and Margot Fonteyn there) it’s more renowned, among music buffs at least, as the place where Eric Clapton jumped out a back window to avoid being busted for drugs.

But that was in the 60s when Chelsea was still a locus for the counter-culture. Pockets of crazy old loons do still exist. I once shared an afternoon drink with a man in a back street pub who claimed to be a Marquis of somewhere whose dog’s name started Count Otto von Bismarck and finished several titles later. He was ejected from the premises after he poured a full bottle of whisky into an antique crystal decanter and got my fifteen year old son to ask the barman for glasses for drinking said whisky while I was in the loo.

But I digress.

Well, the basement of this PE (I’ve never dined here above ground) is on the cramped side – naturally so since they want to sell as many tickets as possible. We arrived early and got a table right by the stage. Not especially hungry we opted to share a starter of calamari, a side salad and a Hawaiian pizza (which PE have been pushing as a major new thing). Also, booze of the white wine variety.

Calamari was good, piping hot and with a tangy garlicky dip. Salad, well it’s salad so not difficult to get wrong but like all chains of this nature it seemed awfully wince to pay four plus quid for a bunch of leaves and a vinaigrette. And then the main event – pizza. Given that their latest publicity puts the pineapple front and centre there wasn’t enough of it in evidence for my liking. As for the chilli it didn’t make it to the plate at all. Which is a shame.

Any disappointment at the pizza was soon forgotten though as Evening Standards went through a charming repertoire of American songs of the twentieth century. The service was very good with staff very unobtrusively taking orders as the show began and delivering bills rapidly once it was over.

To have talented friends is a blessing.

Eats 6/10

Jazz 9/10

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

Review #37 Exotic of India, Stroud Green

April 17, 2016

This being the final venue of an Overground pub crawl from Moorgate to Finsbury Park my critical faculties were not quite as finely tuned as they were at lunchtime. I’ve been to the Exotic before and I think it’s had a refit since then, which is welcome. Poppadoms, chicken madras and okra went in and were yum. Conversation flowed as it will after a lot of liquid refreshment. I can’t remember the service so it must have been fine!

I didn’t visit the jakes.

7/10

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

Review #36 Honest Burger, Old Street

April 17, 2016

A boozy day for a friend’s birthday bookended by visits to two restaurants. Ballast for the afternoon was taken at Honest Burger, in a new development just off Old Street roundabout. Hipsterful at lunchtime we timed our entry perfectly, getting the last two seats in the window. The view of dismal rain-sodden brickwork was not the most picturesque in London but I’m sure on a sunny day it wouldn’t be a bad place to take a pavement table.

The greeting was friendly and service swift. Unobtrusive indie choons floated through the speakers and the room had a convivial feel. We both went for specials – South American inspired burgers with chorizo slices and a herby relish. The burger was cooked to perfection, pink in the middle and really flavoursome – as good as any I’ve had in London. With an Icelandic beer and a good helping of chips I was a very contented customer.

Until I went to the loo that is! This was an angry, lidless, seatless spitting beast that deposited half the flush over my shoes. Semi-comic but only because I didn’t need to make extensive use of the facilities.

8/10 (would have been 9 if I’d held on till the next stop)

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

Review #35, Karamay, Leicester

April 12, 2016

We were in Leicester for three things: rugby, ale and curry. Two out of three was fine considering our curry substitute was a wonderfully serendipitous find. The rugby was outstanding. The mediocre Leicester that I saw a few weeks ago rolling over to Wasps had been replaced by a flair-packed, ravening rugby beast that left the poor Stadois as the sporting equivalent to a bullied schoolchild with its trousers round its ankles and its head stuck in a flushing toilet. My Leicester-supporting companions were in the mood for celebration.

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Welford Road, scene of a severe thrashing.

But what’s this? It’s four in the afternoon of a Sunday and all the curry houses on London Road are shut until five. We faced pacing the streets of Leicester in search of spice or taking a chance on the unknown (or so I thought) cuisine of Western China’s Uighur community. What luck that we did. On entry we realised that we probably interrupted the patron’s family meal break but this didn’t seem to be a problem and we took a table in the window. We were soon joined by several other Leicester fans, whether regulars of Karamay or lured by fellow Tigers it’s hard to say.

The food offers Chinese regulars but is much more interesting for its Uighur specialities. These veer to the Turkish/Iranian and consist of thick spicy stews and pilafs. It turned out that one of our number had actually been to Western China back in the 90s and could confirm the authenticity of both the food and the decor; although after a heavily contested debate we were still undecided as to whether the smooth lounge jazz coming out of the speakers was also an Uighur vibe.

Through a hatch at the back of the room we could see the chef working on his materials and what delicious wonders he produced. A selection of starters was downed in about 10 seconds with the hot and sour soup (laced with fresh noodles) a standout. Service was friendly and the waitress asked us to give her a shout when we were ready for mains. We were. Mine was a bonylambyveggie pot of yum, heavily spiced and hearty fare for a hungry sports fan. I left dignity aside and sucked the tender meat from the bones before pouring in my rice and finishing the whole lot. Satisfaction reigned supreme around the table.

They have no licence so it’s soft drinks only but a rest from the beer was no bad thing We left congratulating ourselves on having made a real find, all for under fifteen quid a head. I can’t wait to come back next season.

9/10

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

Review #34 Cosmoba, Russell Square

April 12, 2016

After a convivial meeting with some South African co-authors in The Lamb (whose praises cannot be sung too high) we were once more crippled by the rules. The Lamb’s natural successor is Cigala but that was off the agenda. I’ve heard good things about Noble Rot but the mood of the group wasn’t in favour so we went in search of somewhere open at 5 in the early evening and ended up, after a bit of a trek (there’s one for my Afrikaans chums) in Cosmoba.

Cosmoba’s curious name is explained by it being located in Cosmo Place – the little alley between Southampton Row and Queen’s Square that I never realised had a name of its own. The reason for coming here would normally be the Queen’s Larder, which is an outstanding pub, but Cosmoba also rises above its bulk tourism setting to offer something that a Londoner would appreciate too.

The front room was full so we had a table in a curiously corridor shaped back room where a row of tables leave room for the waiter to shuffle past to reach patrons in the distant corner. Slightly off putting at first but fine once you get used to it. The food is standard Italian stuff with a few Sicilian specialities to liven up the selection – we had good crispy arancini as well as antipasto to start.

We all had pizza for main, and it was good pizza. A proper thin base and generous helpings on top with a rich tomato sauce. Table wine at about 18 quid a bottle was nothing special whereas the service was the standout feature. A cheerful, friendly waiter (and the food he brought) turned a hungry, tired and irritable group of four people into a functioning family unit having a good Saturday night out together. That’s a rare talent.

7/10

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

Review #33 German Gymnasium, Kings Cross

April 5, 2016

A sunny afternoon and a hungry family were on the hunt for something a bit different in town. With the youngest doing German A-Level it was back to Kings Cross to test out the quality of the Gymnasium’s sausage.* This made a serendipitous finale to the weekend after seeing Victoria, recommended viewing for its spectacle if not for its improbable storyline concerning the stupidest, yet surprisingly effective bank robbers currently on a screen near you.

The room is fabulous, a historic building transformed into an elegant room with several different dining/drinking spaces and a gurt high ceiling which gives an airy feel. On sunnier days sitting on their terrace of an afternoon would be an admirable thing to do. A smattering of customers chattered to the strains of Europop blanding discreetly in the background.

In between lunch and dinner the menu is restricted to a selection of Mitteleuropa staples (wurst, goulash, fish, cakes and strudel) but we didn’t mind that. Tasty bread to kick off is a nice touch and then we looked at drinks. The youngest took a pint of beer (good call) and we looked at the wine list which features a more extensive selection of German and Austrian wines than you’re likely to find elsewhere in London. A Trocken from Baden was a thing of utter yum and on reflection I wish I’d had more of it.

Food when it arrived (and the service was faultless) was tasty and generous. Two big knackewursts on a good dollop of mash with sauerkraut (and not too sour) on the side was dispatched without mercy. The goulash soup looked good too but was maybe a little on the small side for a man-sized appetite. We were nearly tempted by the desserts but caution prevailed and we strolled off in Teutonic contentment. I can’t break the rules and return for food but I can predict with certainty that the GG will rival Bar Pepito for a pre-train aperitif when out with northern friends in the years to come.

8/10

*The last time I was here was for a Monocle event in 2012 at which the deputy mayor of Rio gave a presentation outlining his vision of Olympic renovation for the city, after which I got into an improbable conversation with a representative of GE about advancements in turbine technology. Given that I was the only person in the room who looked neither like a supermodel nor a captain of industry it took him a surprisingly long time to twig that I had a limited budget to spend on his heavy duty Jenbacher model.

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap


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