Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Love Is Enough

So this past week has been a busy one as I have relocated to Oxford for a new job! Everything has been very full on but I thought I should do a bit of exploring this weekend. I am very new to the city having only visited perhaps once before, so I have a lot of navigating and discovering to do!

This weekend I went to the Modern Art Oxford gallery. They have an exhibition on called Love is Enough which showcases the work of both William Morris and Andy Warhol. I've always been fascinated by both artists, although I've never thought of putting the two together. Seeing William Morris tapestries alongside Elizabeth Taylor in techni-colour pop art was a bit of a culture clash, but the reading material which accompanied the display explains a little of the reasoning behind them being brought together.

Both artists were printmakers with very organic ways of working, with Warhol experimenting with colour, and Morris looking to science, botany and wildlife for his inspiration. Morris and Warhol were also both influenced by a sense of fantasy and mythology. William Morris created several images inspired by Camelot and King Arthur, recreating the glamour and iconography in his stained glass windows and pictures of knights in shining armour. Andy Warhol's obsession with celebrity is also documented. His most famous series of prints, featuring stars such as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, started out from correspondence as a child, where he would ask for their picture, and keep them all in a scrapbook.

The display also shows a connection between print making and publication, which both artists shared. Warhol started Interview magazine (still going strong today) which injected a new sense of style and glamour into a fashion mag, with unscripted celebrity interviews  as well as his own prints and illustrations. Morris used print as part of his socialist ideals and a means of uniting and gathering together like-minded people.

What's certain is that both artists had an idea of democratising art, be it through Morris' desire to allow all households to own something either 'useful or beautiful', or through Warhol's popularisation of art prints as something more mass market. As the exhibition booklet summarises "they wrote, published and, in their embrace of commercial and fine art, had influence far beyond the art world".

I really enjoyed  this little venture out into the city but I'm still not sure whether Andy Warhol and William Morris are a match made in heaven or just a complete culture clash - let me know what you think!

Either way, I hope to continue exploring Oxford and documenting just a little of what the city has to offer.

Monday, 9 February 2015

The Lady in the Looking Glass

"People should not leave looking glasses hanging in their rooms any more than they should leave open cheque books or letters confessing some hideous crime." - Virginia Woolf 

I've been finding it really hard to focus on large amounts of reading at the moment, probably because it's so cold in my house that my brain just turns to mulch! So when I discovered this tiny book, at the princely sum of £3, I thought I'd give it a read.

Virginia Woolf is one of my favourite authors, I just love her writing style and the way her words flow so effortlessly. This little book contains five of her short stories, each one fizzing with thoughts, ideas, ramblings and musings. 

One of my favourites in this small collection is The Mark on The Wall, which shows the joys of what I can only describe as 'slow thinking'. The narrator pauses to notice a mark on the wall, a mark she can't take her eyes off. This leads to a chain of interconnected thoughts, as she ponders life and death and everything in between. Woolf's thoughts flit and fly at such a speed as she compares life to being 'blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour', all whilst sitting and staring at a mark on the wall. I love that Woolf conveys a mind so overflowing with ideas but so contained against a stuffy setting in a single room. Perhaps we should spend more time staring at marks on walls!

The title story of this short book is The Lady in the Looking Glass. I found this the most pertinent of all these stories, as it encompasses something I've been thinking about a lot recently. There are so many think pieces about 'selfie' culture floating around at the moment, and although first published in the late 1920s this story could easily be applied to our obsession with selfies and our online personas today. Does our reflection in the mirror validate ourselves or diminish us completely? Within the story, the image the woman presents to the world vanishes when she steps in front of the mirror. Her selfhood was simply made up of intriguing unopened letters, and exotic jewellery from her travels. Hopefully we are made up of more than our Instagram photos and Facebook likes... I'm sure Virginia Woolf would have something to say on the subject!

I don't want to get too deep and meaningful on a Monday... but if your after a short read that still has a lot of bite I'd really recommend this little collection of stories.

Have a lovely week! Xx

Monday, 2 February 2015

Ladybird by Design

Last weekend I visited the wonderful 'Ladybird by Design' exhibition thanks to a recommendation from Little Lewes. The display is being held at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, which is a beautiful example of 1930s art deco architecture and really makes you feel as though you're on a sophisticated ocean liner.

The exhibition takes a look back at the many designs created for the iconic Ladybird books. Although focusing on designs from the 1950s to 70s, I'm pretty sure no self-respecting Brit of any generation could escape childhood without reading one of these. Seeing the original illustrations up close was particularly interesting as they showed the amount of detail that went into each individual image. The paintings have lost none of their technicolour glory, with bright lollipop reds, yellows and greens befitting and Enid Blyton adventure. There's something quite modern about the simple and classic way each image and book was presented, and I'm sure many of today's children's book illustrators owe more than a little to the Ladybird artists.

Whilst Ladybird books hold a huge amount of nostalgia for many of us (I know my mum learnt to read on a strict diet of 'Peter and Jane'), what's perhaps most striking is just how 'of their time' they were. The books are so gender specific it seems almost comical. We have 'Shopping with Mother' and 'Learning with Mother' as well as 'Helping at Home' (with mother!). All whilst the men are depicted going out to work or showing their sons how to wash a car. Luckily for us we can look at these books as nostalgic artefacts of a very different time, happy in the knowledge that Ladybird no longer define their books by gender stereotypes.

When viewed altogether it's overwhelming to see just how many books and series were produced. Ladybird covered seemingly every topic from party games to countries of the world, founded in an honest and almost naive attempt to educate children on every subject imaginable. They printed each book on a single sheet of paper allowing them to produce books cheaply and efficiently at a time of paper rationing, creating beautifully designed books that were available to all.

'Ladybird by Design' is free and continues until 10th May. There is also a book available to coincide with the exhibition.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Silent Partners

I feel so lucky that I managed to catch the very last day of 'Silent Partners' at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I'd been dying to see it ever since I first saw posters about it all over the tube and knew it would be right up my street. Entitled 'Artist & Mannequin from Function to Fetish', the exhibition looks at mannequins throughout history, as props used for paintings and later as the main focus of the images themselves.

The first mannequins we encountered were ones used for medical study, with the ceramic body cut away to reveal neatly carved internal organs. There were also miniature mannequins used to model clothes on a tiny scale, including a Marie-Antoinette style doll with painted on rosy cheeks and a made-to-measure dress with delicate embroidery. But the majority of the exhibition focused on the use of mannequins by artists, as a means of replacing life models. These were created in France and were skilfully designed to mimic the human body, with moveable limbs and sculpted faces. A short film - a piece of early French cinema by Georges Melieres - was also on display and showed some hilarious battles between artist and mannequin.

I loved seeing the Pre-Raphaelite paintings by the likes of Burne-Junes and Ford Madox Brown and was to surprised to learn how often they used mannequins in their work. 'The Black Brunswicker' by Millais shows Kate Dickens (daughter of Charles) in an embrace with a soldier. However, as she was unmarried the artist had to make use of mannequins so that the two where never in the room at the same time!

As well as the main exhibit, throughout the museum there were a selection of photographs by Tim Walker, hidden in various rooms. Tim Walker is one of my favourite photographers, so it was lovely to see some of his pictures blown up. I had never really thought about the influence that mannequins have on his photography, but he so often references them in his work (type in 'Tim Walker mannequin' into Google and you'll see what I mean). This is why I love going to museums and exhibitions so much as you get to learn who inspired who and find out how everything is connected.

There is something eery and unsettling about mannequins, and the exhibition captured this perfectly, with the life-like dolls sitting throughout the exhibition, staring blankly into space. And, whilst I would not like to be trapped in this exhibition at night, I honestly found it to be one of the most intriguing and inspiring that I've been to in a long time.

If you missed the exhibition (like I very nearly did) then you'll be able to catch it across the Channel in Paris! For more information see here.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Fashion Academia

Over the past few months I've become more and more interested in fashion writing. Fashion as a study was something altogether new for me. Of course, I knew of costume history and costume design, whole university courses are dedicated to learning the intricacies of the 18th century corset, but this was something different. These books look at how and why clothes are used in literature, how historical clothing is presented in museums or how a fictional character's wardrobe speaks volumes about their place in society, and who they are. 

I've managed to hoard a few these type of books, as well as discovering some in my local library. Here are my 5 favourite 'Academic Fashion' books:

1. Dressed in Fiction by Clair Hughes.

This book combines two of my loves: fashion and fiction. Looking at specific moments in literature, Hughes examines the important role played by clothing. Her collection of essays focuses on iconic novels such as Wilkie Collin's The Woman in White, George Elliot's Middlemarch and Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. I found her writing on Northanger Abbey and how Austen's Henry Tilney knows so much about fashion particularly interesting, and, although I have yet to read all of these classic novels, I found reading about clothing and costume in this way completely fascinating and refreshing.

2. Adorned in Dreams by Elizabeth Wilson
Perhaps the best ever title for a book? First published 1985 this is a 'pop culture' style look at fashion. Wilson includes her observations on the fashion industry, fashion and gender, oppositional dress and fashion and feminism. Although it was written 30 years ago this is so on the ball and relevant to discussions we have about fashion today. Wilson talks about consumerism and fast fashion as well as whether a woman can wear lipstick and heels and still call herself a feminist. That we are still having these conversations today shows how much we still have to say about fashion and the role it plays in our everyday lives - and how on it Elizabeth Wilson was back then!

3. The Literary Companion to Fashion by Colin McDowell
I absolutely love that this book exists. As reviewed earlier on my blog here, The Literary Companion to Fashion is a compendium of fashion quotes. From Shakespeare to Joyce, Dickens to Woolf, the book includes every reference to dress you could possible want. All those iconic fashion moments in literature appear, from Meg getting dressed up for the ball in Little Women, to Scarlett O'Hara making dresses out of curtains in Gone with the Wind. This is such a brilliant reference book for the moments when fashion meets literature, although as it was published back in 1995 I'm sure there are many more quotes to be added to this list!

4. 400 Years of Fashion ed. by Natalie Rothstein
A friend gave me this as a birthday present a few years ago, and it was a lovely way of introducing me to costume history. The book is filled with some beautiful illustrations and photos (as shown above) and gives a broad overview of fashion history throughout the ages.

5. Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen by Sarah Jane Downing
Finally, this little book sheds some light on clothing of the regency period and what Jane herself might have worn. When I studied Austen at university I used to love absorbing all the details of dress that are included in her novels, wondering about the part the played in her characters' lives - and this does just that.

I'm also really looking forward to Amber Jan Butchard's Nautical Chic book which is due to come out in March!

What are your favourite fashion books? I'd love to know in the comments!

Thursday, 15 January 2015

My Favourite Books of 2014

I know I'm a little bit late in the game to be talking about last year's 'favourites', but I couldn't leave 2014 behind without flicking through my book diary and typing up a list of my most treasured reads from the year.

Looking back, I read a total of 35 books, which I'm quite happy about. I'm not someone who can skip through a list of books at a mile a minute, but I'm hoping this year to meet the 50 mark... we shall see!

Anyway, without further ado, here are my top ten reads of 2014:

1) The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Virgin Suicides is such an escapist book to read in a way and really captures the hazy, magical, boredom-filled days of teenage-hood. 

2) On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
This is a very short novel about a young couple in the run up to their marriage. Their miscommunications and naivety, along with the pressures put upon them by their families mean that their relationship is put a risk.

3) For Esme with Love and Squalor by J.D. Salinger
This is one of Salinger's short story collections. The title story is my favourite. It's about a young girl's correspondence with a soldier during the war. Their relationship is both charming and heart-breaking. 

4) A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
This book won the Bailey's prize for women's fiction last year and deservedly so. It is written in a stream of consciousness style and so takes a while to get into but the effort is so worth it. Its a story of a girl growing up in desperate circumstances, her brother is ill, she falls in with the wrong people, she spirals into a never-ending cycle of self-destruction and depression. It's not a cheery read but is a book that stays with you.

5) Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
There was such a buzz around Chimamanda last year and I hope to get round to reading all her books in the future. This book opened my eyes to feminism from a Nigerian woman's perspective and made me think about attitudes to race in both America and the UK that I had never even considered before.

6) The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter
My first Angela Carter! Unlike anything I have read before this is a magical, disturbing and unsettling modern 'fairytale'. Her writing is incredible and conjures up vivid images, of white wedding dresses, macabre toys, unconventional families, but is ultimately about a girl Melanie who trying to come into her own against this incredibly backdrop of Grimm fairytale, Greek tragedy and British folklore.

7) Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
I loved the nostalgic atmosphere that this creates, of the country house of Brideshead, of roaming through the colleges of Oxford university, and of course Charles's obsession with Sebastian and his family. It's perfect summer reading.

8) The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The hype surrounding The Goldfinch has been everywhere. I tried to avoid it seeing as it's such a long book but eventually gave it a go and am so glad I did! It involves art, secrets, mystery, friendships and beautifully created scenes set in New York and Vegas.

9) Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
I went to Lena's book talk in November where she was interviewed by Caitlin Moran and was completely blown away by her. She is so open with her experiences and I was often found thinking that her experiences were nothing out of the ordinary, similar things have happened to me, and yet that's what's so important about her work. She is making women's experiences important through writing about every aspect of a girl growing up and I'm excited to see what she does next.

10) Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates
This both enraged and motivated me. I don't think anyone could read this without feeling an overwhelming sense of anger but this isn't a book that rants or preaches, Laura explores the power of educating girls and boys in schools and using people power to change things, creating a network of women who are in solidarity with each other.

So that's my top ten books of the year! I'd love to know what yours are in the comments. Here's to lots more reading in 2015.