30 January 2013


And when Voice is kaput, what next?

Voice that has blanketed itself in mucus and phlegm.

Voice that has buried itself deep, refusing to be coaxed out with promises of  chocolate fudge sundaes.  All grumpy and sorry for itself, pulling the duvet over its head.  Playing hard to get, its sulky outline infuriating.

Voice that’s taken a hike.  Gone off in a huff though you've no idea why, berate yourself with thoughts of was it something that I said?

Voice that’s gone whiskery and curmudgeonly.  Retreated.  Holding out in a log cabin in the woods.  Refusing even to wave through the gaps in the planks, though you know it's in there because you’ve smelt the smoke and seen the discarded fur of a trapped weasel.

Voice that’s gone to wallow in something closer to the ground.  A bleat.  A grunt. 

Voice that sends you to internet forums.  Help for Voice.  The Dos and the Don’ts.  Do take honey, lemon, slippery elm.  Don’t drink milk, eat cheese.  Do shut up.  Don’t test Voice out too soon, startle it half-naked, make it run off again.

And the hope, the prayer that becomes Vocalzones.  The cheat, the rescue that is Vocalzones, not knowing the science of it all, just out for the short-term remedy.  Because Voice, having been AWOL all week, needs to be brought to heel.  The show must go on.

And half an hour after the first Vocalzone has kicked in, Voice is suddenly there.  It’s got up, got itself dressed.  Though not wearing the outfit you’d have chosen, it’s done the right thing.

Voice is surly.  

But it’s not completely abandoned you after all.

22 January 2013

Another Name in the Supper Pot - Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Self-portrait in a straw hat 1782

You probably know the game – the one where you make up an ideal guest list and choose famous people, living or dead, you’d like to invite round for dinner. 

Well, I’ve just had to add a new person to my list.

There she was, framed in a corner of the National Gallery in London, at first seemingly just A.N. Other society beauty, until closer inspection revealed a telltale palette and paintbrushes.   It turned out that the pretty pink-cheeked woman in a flirty hat with voluptuous feather was none other than the portraitist Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun.

She was the second shock in the space of fifteen minutes.  Back in the Impressionist section of the gallery, I’d just realised (klutz moment) that the painter Morisot, whose work I’ve long admired - even had on my student walls in postcard form - was in fact Berthe Morisot, for Bertha, not for the rather more trouser-wearing Bert Morisot, her alter ego.   So much for the assumption that every single painter on display was necessarily male.

The French painter Vigée Le Brun (1755 – 1842) in fact pre-dated the Impressionists by a hundred years.  How much more remarkable does it seem, then, that she was able to establish herself in the male-dominated world of Paris in the late eighteenth century during the upheavals of the French Revolution.

It’s true that she had some help in her genes and circumstances.  Her father was a painter, Louis Vigée, and after he tragically died when she was twelve, a new and relatively wealthy stepfather was able to pay for painting lessons.  At the age of  twenty  she married the painter and art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun whose circle of influence  undoubtedly helped her but who kept control of her money, often to pay off his gambling debts.

But her talent was incontestable.  It had manifested young and had burst out everywhere at the boarding school she attended from the age of six to eleven.  Her memoirs tell us: “I scrawled on everything at all seasons; my copy-books, and even my schoolmates', I decorated with marginal drawings of heads, some full-face, others in profile; on the walls of the dormitory I drew faces and landscapes with coloured chalks.  So it may easily be imagined how often I was condemned to bread and water.  I made use of my leisure moments outdoors in tracing any figures on the ground that happened to come into my head.  At seven or eight, I remember, I made a picture by lamplight of a man with a beard….  When my father saw it he went into transports of joy, exclaiming: ‘You will be a painter, child, if ever there was one!’ "

Elisabeth (I think we can move  on to first-name terms) enjoyed considerable success within her own lifetime, leaving behind 660 portraits and 200 landscapes.  She painted many of “the most delightful and most distinguished men and women in Europe” – including members of the nobility, the Prince of Wales, Lord Byron, the family of Catherine the Great of Russia. 

But I’m not inviting her round for supper solely on the strength of her contact list, but for the anecdotes, insight and pioneering spirit she’s likely to impart.   For example, I’ll want to find out more about her singing sprees with Marie Antoinette.  During the sittings for more than thirty portraits, it seems that they would warble duets by Grétry, for Marie Antoinette “was exceedingly fond of music, although she did not sing very true.”  And we’ll certainly need to get the low-down on the sessions with the Prince of Wales (the future George IV) which enraged those English painters who were elbowed aside for the privilege and which worried the Queen Mother enough into thinking that some kind of hanky-panky was going on. 

I’ll want to ask her about her scarf-draping techniques that came from her intense dislike of the female fashion at that time, when she found that wrapping bits of material made portraits “a little more picturesque”.   Perhaps, too, she’ll reveal more about that famous exchange with an English painter she simply describes as M:  "It seems that my lace shocks you, although I have painted none for fifteen years.   I vastly prefer scarves, which you, sir, would do well yourself to employ.  Scarves, you may believe me, are a boon to painters, and had you used them you would have acquired good taste in draping, in which you are deficient.”

She’ll be fascinating, no doubt, about her artistic eye, and to what extent she was tempted to enhance the appearance of her sitters.  Marie Antoinette, although pitchy of voice, apparently possessed an amazing complexion.  “I never have seen one so brilliant,” writes Elisabeth, “and brilliant is the word, for her skin was so transparent that it bore no umber in the painting.  Neither could I render the real effect of it as I wished.  I had no colours to paint such freshness, such delicate tints, which were hers alone, and which I had never seen in any other woman.”  

Marie Antoinette by Vigée Le Brun

She had equally flattering comments to make about the Prince of Wales:  “Tall and well-built, he had a handsome face; his features were all regular and distinguished.  He wore a wig very artistically disposed, the hair parted on the forehead like the Apollo di Belvedere's, and this suited him to perfection.”

Whereas she may have felt favourable towards its monarch, generally, however, she found England "unmerry".    She has a point -  at the time she visited, London had no picture gallery, and great works of art could only be seen in the private homes of the wealthy.  There was, therefore, much less of interest for an artist compared to Paris or Rome.    And  “Sunday in London is as dismal as the climate…" she writes.  " The English are used to braving their weather.  I often met them in the pouring rain, riding without umbrellas in open carriages. They are satisfied with wrapping their cloaks about them, but this has its drawbacks for strangers unaccustomed to such a watery state of things.” 

The “watery state of things” was no mere idle complaint, for unlike in Paris, she needed to keep a fire burning constantly in her studio, then judge and juggle the distances of her canvasses from the grate in order to dry them.

She’ll be a sparky and fascinating guest.  To make her feel comfortable on this first visit, I’ll arrange proceedings according to her own taste:  

  • the cleverest will get an invitation including, perhaps, a poet, a viscount, an actress
  • start time will be 9.0 pm
  • ladies will wear white gowns
  • it will be a light evening repast -  some fowl, some fish, a dish of vegetables, a salad
  • no politics - but we’ll chat about literature and tell anecdotes of the hour
  • there will be refined merriment and diversions such as charades
  • no extra food will be provided, even if guests stay until midnight

I hope more than anything that she will inspire us about her passion for art.   “Nor has that passion ever diminished; it seems to me that it has even gone on growing with time, for to-day I feel under the spell of it as much as ever, and shall, I hope, until the hour of death.”

All quotations from A Celebration of Women Writers: Memoirs of Madame Vigée Le Brun (1755 -1842)
by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Translated by Lionel Strachey, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1903.


3 January 2013

Out in the Forest

Out in the forest at this time of year, everything is holding its breath.  Although mid-winter, there's a lightening amongst the deciduous trees.  Branches are defined and free of clutter.  Space has been cleared in preparation for the new.  Vistas are generous.  You can see things you can’t normally see when foliage complicates the issue. 

But of course, all is not one hundred percent well.  Ash dieback has spread to our shores.  A disease first noticed in Lithuania, but with origins in Asia, it is sweeping eastwards, and making steady and grim progress through our woodlands.    

In Norse mythology, the tree of life, Yggdrasil, is a giant ash that links the worlds.  Should it be affected, then all life is threatened.  

It is a metaphor with arresting resonance, as much as the words of a forester who on a recent radio programme talked about the measures needed to cope with this new disease and the serious thought required as to what trees might be able to replace the stricken ash. What he mentioned has stuck with me: that in the maintenance of a forest, there is nothing short-term at all.  Decisions made today would far out-reach his own span of time.  He would not live to see many of the results of his work, but was involved in stewardship for a coming century and future generations. 

Listening to him, I thought of people who would benefit from such an approach, and perhaps from a compulsory six months work experience in a forest – politicians, economists, industrialists… But then my list grew and grew to pretty much everyone on this planet, regardless of occupation or condition.  We all, let's face it, ultimately need to honour the patch around us, protect its possibilities for those who will succeed us, and take responsibility for what we choose to fell and what we choose to nurture.

So here's to the new dreams you plant in 2013 - may a number of them be not of the instant variety but unfurl gradually into something majestic, sturdy and truly lasting.