I was delighted to ‘discover’ Catherine Goodman at the National Portrait Gallery in London. I was there to see the BP Portrait exhibition and in a side gallery near the entrance a small exhibition of Catherine Goodman’s work was on show. She was the winner of the BP competition in 2002 and here she is, some years later, with a range of portraits of her family and friends.
I like her particular style which seems somewhat heavy at first, especially when compared with many of the portraits in the corridors around, but the people seem to emerge from the background and this makes them paintings to peer into and stare at. I took my time in the two rooms dedicated to her work.
I usually go searching for the familiar, for paintings in my hinterland, but it was terrific to discover for myself an artist whose work I loved.
In London, I headed over to the St. Paul’s area because I wanted to look again at the National Firefighters’ Memorial that is on the approach to the Millennium footbridge. This statue of three firemen was originally designed as a memorial to the firefighters who fought fires during the Blitz when the German air force bombed London for over 50 nights in a row. The sculpture was made by John W Mills and unveiled in 1991 by the Queen Mother. It was significant that it was her as she had lived in London during the war and was there during the Blitz.
It was later decided that this tribute to the bravery of fire fighters at the most intense period of history should also become a monument to all fire fighters who gave their lives during the course of duty and the original sculpture was re-sited in its current position. It now stands on a plinth which has the names of all fire fighters killed while fighting fires.
This poem by Brian Patten is worth reading and committing to memory.
Sometimes It Happens
And sometimes it happens that you are friends and then
You are not friends,
And friendship has passed.
And whole days are lost and among them
A fountain empties itself.
And sometimes it happens that you are loved and then
You are not loved,
And love is past.
And whole days are lost and among them
A fountain empties itself into the grass.
And sometimes you want to speak to her and then
You do not want to speak,
Then the opportunity has passed.
Your dreams flare up, they suddenly vanish.
And also it happens that there is nowhere to go and then
There is somewhere to go,
Then you have bypassed.
And the years flare up and are gone,
Quicker than a minute.
So you have nothing.
You wonder if these things matter and then
As soon you begin to wonder if these things matter
They cease to matter,
And caring is past.
And a fountain empties itself into the grass.
‘Sometimes It Happens’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Coming out of the National Portrait Gallery in London, I stopped by the statue opposite. The statue is one I have passed so many times but rarely paid any attention to. On this occasion I stopped to take in this memorial to a nurse who was a victim of the First World War.
Edith Cavell was a British nurse who helped soldiers of both sides in WW1. She is also celebrated for helping over 200 allied soldiers escape from German occupied Belgium. It was this act that led to her court martial and a sentence to death. Despite calls for clemency, she was shot by German firing squad on 12th October 1915. This led to International condemnation. Many medical professionals were treated differently during war time but the Germans decided her actions were treasonable and carried out the sentence of death.
After the war her remains were brought back to Britain and a state funeral was held in Westminster Abbey. She was reburied in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral. The memorial to her in London was unveiled in 1920. The sculpture was by George Frampton.
The inscription at the base of the statue recalls a sentiment expressed by Cavell to a priest on the evening before her death. “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.”
I visited the National Portrait Gallery to view the annual BP Portrait exhibition. This is always worth visiting for the range of artistic expression on show and the different approaches and styles. It amazes me how far the category ‘portrait’ extends. Once again, it was good to see an exhibition of such variety with some works I loved and others I cared little for, but this is why time in a gallery is well spent.
On the way through the gallery I passed two new acquisitions and was delighted to see them posted more or less opposite each other. These two men are my heroes. The first is Ken Livingstone, Left wing politician and former Mayor of London. I was a big supporter of his in the 80s and again when he first ran for the mayoralty as an Independent. His portrait was painted by Andrew Tift. What I liked most about this portrait is the setting. Livingstone is a keen gardener and naturalist. He has been painted in his own garden in London. It is a reminder of the importance of a hinterland for politicians. Too many know (or care) little of the world outside politics and we are the poorer for allowing ourselves to be ruled by these people.
The second hero is Michael Rosen, an author, poet and broadcaster. I have loved his work for years, have heard him talk and perform on two occasions and like his position on education and creativity; his views do not find favour with our current government. I appreciate the fact that he keeps on fighting for a child centred education system in the face of politicians who sound like Gradgrind from Dicken’s ‘Hard Times’. Michael Rosen who seems to genuinely care about children. His portrait from 2011 was painted by Lee Fether.
Although I love the National Portrait Gallery, I do have a problem with them over one small thing: where are the postcards of the works and people I most admire? And why could I buy a postcard of Doreen Lawrence (who I admire enormously) and not find Jonathan Yeo’s portrait hanging in the gallery? That, I recognise, is not ‘one small thing’ but two… both small, though.
The National Portrait Gallery is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I was in London so went to the National Gallery. I stopped, as I always do, by Frederic, Lord Leighton’s ‘Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna’. This is the most amazing picture, so it is always worth stopping here.
However, on the agenda today were three paintings I particularly wanted to see again: The first was ‘Music’ by Justus of Ghent. This hangs next to another painting by the artist from the same series. ‘Music’ is the one that captivates me the most, though. There were seven paintings originally representing the Liberal Arts; at least two were destroyed in Berlin. The painting dates from about the 1470s.
Next on my list was ‘The Story of Griselda, Part 2: Exile’ dating back to about 1494. It is also part of a series, this time illustrating the story from Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’. I have to admit that I don’t know the story but I do love the painting and staring at it brings out its own stories.
The final painting for this visit was ‘Portrait if a Gentleman’ by Giovanni Battista Moroni. This dates back to 1555-56, so is relatively modern!
As usual, I rushed past so many more famous paintings to find the three on my list.
I recently read ‘Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet’ by Jamie Ford. The novel was too sentimental and sickly sweet for my tastes but the central story of the effect of the Second World War on Americans of Asian heritage was a fascinating one and led me to explore further. I have already written about ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ by David Guterson which also covers some of the same ground as Hotel… Bitter and Sweet’. The Guterson novel is far superior in my view.
However, my searches led me to a graphic novel by American writer and illustrator Matt Faulkner. His book tells the story of Koji, a boy with mixed heritage. His father is Japanese and his mother is white American. He is an American until the attack on Pearl Harbour on his 13th birthday changes everything for him. As he lives with his mother in San Francisco he is considered a threat to national security. Not make matters worse, his father is in Japan visiting a sick relative. This makes the authorities even more suspicious of the boy and his mother.
Along with thousands of other Japanese Americans, Koji is interned. His mother chooses to enter the camp with him rather than send him alone.
The story is a moving one. Koji’s mixed heritage makes him a target for the Japanese boys in the camp and he is suspicious of the army officers who take an interest in his mother. He is a boy who is unsure where he fits in or why he is no longer welcome in the country of his birth. The early scenes, just after the attack on Pearl Harbour, are the most affecting. Here we see he reaction of the public to anyone who looks Japanese. Koji is refused transit on a cable car, his Principal is hostile and his school friends are now his former school friends.
This book explores an important part of US history through a personal story. Showing the pain inflicted on a family because of events out of their control is a powerful reminder of how a civilisation can act when threatened.