august-september 2019 books…

Bloomsbury (ed Gillian Naylor): Right… prepare yourself for THREE Bloomsbury/Charleston books on the trot! This one, published in 1990 (Moira bought it secondhand in Oxfam in 1999), focuses on the work and ideals of the artists, writers and designers associated with the Bloomsbury Group during the early years of the 20th century. I’ve ‘read’ and perused the book on lots of occasions, but realised that I’d actually never REALLY read it. So I’ve now done so. I’ve long been fascinated by people who made up the ‘Group’: the likes of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, Virginia Woolf and Clive Bell. What’s so nice about this book is that it’s made up entirely ‘by the artists, authors and designers themselves’ – extracts from diaries, letters, books and so on (with references to the Omega Workshops, Charleston, Hogarth Press and society in general). Yes, I’m very aware that they came mostly from upper middle-class professional families (which, no doubt, took a little pressure off the need to ‘earn a living’!) but, nevertheless, I was intrigued by their overlapping, interconnected similarity of ideas and attitudes (“the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge”) which I found incredibly stimulating and which provided much food for thought. A beautiful book that I’ll certainly continue to delve into over the coming years.
Charleston (Quenton Bell+Virginia Nicholson): We bought this book (published in 1997) when we visited Charleston in 1999. Charleston is a rather lovely house set in the heart of the Sussex downs. This is a book that celebrates the “lives, wit and originality” of some of the people who lived there from 1916 onwards – including painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. In this very beautiful, illustrated book, the authors Quentin Bell (younger son of Clive+Vanessa Bell) and his daughter Virginia Nicholson tell the story of the house and some of the leading cultural figures who were invited there (the book reckons its ‘golden age’s was from 1925 to 1937 – a period I particularly love, when it comes to British art). The house’s rooms are all richly (and unconventionally) decorated by many of those who lived in it over the years and, certainly, the house today (opened to the public) is an enchanting place - a feast of colour and creativity. Clearly, it wasn’t always such a heady experience in the early days – the garden was completely overgrown and the heating was either patchy or non-existent. My favourite passage in the book reads thus: “When the house was being restored (by the Charleston Trust) it was discovered that the studio walls had, in fact, been painted only after the pictures and the large mirror had been hung. Clearly Duncan and Vanessa had never considered doing anything so time-consuming as taking them down and hanging them up again, and when they were finally removed areas of bare plaster were exposed.” Over recent years, I’ve become more and more fascinated by the work (and personalities) of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant – particularly Grant (who apparently painted every day and was constantly experimenting – decorating furniture, designing textiles, pottery etc). Whatever your views on British art in the early years of the 20th century (art fashions change rather quickly!), I think there’s something really quite inspirational about the work associated with Charleston. It’s a very lovely book.
Deceived With Kindness (Angelica Garnett): Right, the very last of my Bloomsbury/Charleston-related books (promise)! First published in 1984 (+new Preface 1995). Angelica Garnett (1918-2012) was the daughter of painter Vanessa Bell; her childhood homes – Charleston, Sussex and Gordon Square, London – were both centres of Bloomsbury activity and she grew up among the most eminent writers and artists of the day. But she battled (and largely failed) to achieve independence from this rather intense and remarkable community and this memoir is essentially a self-analysis of her struggles… and she DID lead a rather complicated life! Her relationship with her mother was never straightforward (Garnett regretted the lack of frankness on both sides and it seems that children rather got in the way of her mother’s art!); her schooling was haphazard and regarding as somewhat unimportant (eg. missing whole terms to spend time in France on vacation); she spent the first 18 years(?) of her life believing that her father was Clive Bell, when in fact it was Duncan Grant (Vanessa’s painting partner); she ended up marrying one of her parents’ contemporaries, David ‘Bunny’ Garnett – 26 years her senior (and, for a brief time, also Duncan Grant’s lover)… as I say, her life was ‘complicated’! It’s a beautifully written, incredibly honest book which reveals another fascinating side to the Group.
Plot 29 (Allan Jenkins): You might recall that I recently read Jenkins’s excellent ‘Morning’ book… about him rising very early and tending his north-west London allotment before breakfast (amongst other things)? Jenkins is the editor of ‘Observer Food Monthly’. In this book, he talks about how its content changed from his initial perceptions: “It was to be about gardening, a year in the life of a piece of land, with personal stuff added in”. The final book tells the story of him as a young boy in the 1950s/60s Plymouth, together with his brother Christopher, being ‘rescued’ from care by an elderly couple (who lived in Averton Gifford, Devon – a village I know well). Although things didn’t really work out in the end, they did learn to grow flowers from seed at their riverside cottage. As Jenkins digs deeper into his difficult past, he finds solace in tending his allotment and its echoes with his childhood memories. A beautifully-written, brave and encouraging book about resilience and, as Monty Don puts it: “A superbly written testament to the power of earth to nourish and heal”. I’m no gardener, but I really loved this book.
The Scent Of The Night (Andrea Camilleri): This is the last book of my Montalbano ‘stock’ – I think I need to check out (and acquire!) the few remaining books in the series that I haven’t yet read. I really enjoy reading the bizarre adventures of the Sicilian police inspector… the plots are always clever - this one, quite complex, involving a financial entrepreneur who, through a kind of pyramid scheme, had successfully (albeit illegally) relieved large numbers of people of their life savings. But, for me, the real pleasure of the books comes from the characters of Mantalbano’s loyal and eccentric tea, the Sicilian setting, his food-loving lifestyle, his eccentricities, the beautiful women and, of course, the humour. Easy reading certainly – but always pleasurable too.