Category: London

The Library of Books and Bombs

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan for The Paris Review
andrew-moore-county-archive

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan writes for The Paris Review on the history and transformation of London’s Bethnal Green Library, which was once an insane asylum.

Last summer, I moved into a flat on the edge of London’s Bethnal Green and Whitechapel. I chose it only because it was where my significant human made his home. It was my first time moving in with someone. As I clattered up from the Tube, I found myself in a swell of schoolchildren on Jack the Ripper tours, Bangladeshi immigrant families, and men with tortoiseshell glasses and Scandinavian backpacks. The local cafe offers beetroot lattes and vegan croissants. The local supermarket has an aisle devoted to halal food. This was a beautiful place to live, but I was a mess. My first novel was about to come out, and I jittered and jangled around the flat, failing to read or write.

Finally, I did what I’ve always done when nervous. I looked for a library. My father told me once that he always has to know the location of the door of any room he’s in. I need to know the nearest bookshop and library. The theory is the same: we need an escape. 

I googled to check the opening hours and found something stranger. The library building once housed an insane asylum—so notorious that the park was known as “Barmy Park.” On the outside, it looked like a library in a particularly fine picture book, one with watercolor illustrations and a moral ending. The only thing out of place was the violently modern library sign slapped onto the face of the building, letters in blunt red sans serif. When I sat in the main reading room, trying to work, I could not focus. I kept trying to imagine the people who had been locked within these walls. I could not detect a trace of madhouse. It was so quiet. The books were so well ordered. How on earth had this gone from a famous asylum to a home for books? Libraries have always made me feel saner. Perhaps someone hoped this would serve the same purpose?

(…)

The Painter and the Novelist

Paul Levy for The New York Review of Books
Virginia and Leslie Stephen, 1902; photograph by George Charles Beresford

Paul Levy writes on the Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell and her younger sister, Virginia Woolf, for The New York Review of Books.

The Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell, née Stephen, lived most of her life (1879–1961) in the chilly, concealing shade of her younger sister, Virginia Woolf—the last twenty years following Virginia’s suicide in 1941. Though the attention paid to the Bloomsbury Group seems to be waning on both sides of the Atlantic, there is currently a surge of interest in Bell. Priya Parmar’s novel Vanessa and Her Sister artfully sheds new light on Bell, who is also part of an imaginative group exhibition, “Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion,” at Two Temple Place in London (William Waldorf Astor’s townhouse, now an exhibition venue). Dulwich Picture Gallery (England’s earliest public art gallery constructed for that purpose) has mounted the first major exhibition of Bell’s work. Her sex life was the chief subject of the BBC series Life in Squares (2015); she was played at different ages by Phoebe Fox and Eve Best.

In 1907, Vanessa married Clive Bell, the art critic and father of her two sons; she briefly became the lover of Roger Fry, the highly admired art critic; and she was the lifelong companion of the gay painter Duncan Grant, whose work will be featured in Tate Britain’s exhibition “Queer British Art, 1861–1967,” opening in April, and who was the father of Bell’s daughter, Angelica. Posterity has judged Virginia the greater artist, but in Parmar’s fictionalized account, Vanessa is the nobler, more sympathetic of the Bloomsbury Group’s founding sisters.

Was Bell a good painter? The striking catalog for the Dulwich show (of seventy-six paintings, works on paper, and fabrics, as well as photographs by both her and Patti Smith) equivocates by stressing her place in art history, saying that she was “one of the most advanced British artists of her time, with her own distinctive vision, boldly interpreting new ideas about art which were brewing in France and beyond.” Nancy Durrant, an art critic for the London Times, agrees: “This show is a joy…. What a magnificent creature she must have been.”

(…)

Interview: Melville House Books

Kaitlyn Tiffany for The Verge
CvocvxfXEAAwpF_.0

How the scrappiest social media team in publishing is holding the industry’s feet to the fire: Melville House has thoughts on Amazon, Milo Yiannopoulos, and ‘publishing during wartime.’

Dennis Johnson, co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House Books and one of the first book bloggers, is possibly best known for the fight he picked in the spring of 2014.

He was at the front of a group of independent publishers who decided to spar with Amazon over the predatory, escalating fees it was charging small publishers, as well as its covert war on the major publisher Hachette, which it carried out by deliberately delaying shipments and hiking prices. Johnson asked The New York Times how Amazon’s business practices weren’t considered “extortion,” and compared the monolith to the Mafia.

That was a decade after Johnson’s first spat with Amazon, when Melville House’s books were pulled from the site completely until Johnson paid what he referred to as “a bribe.” More recently, he and the team at Melville House have spent plenty of time tweeting and blogging criticisms of Amazon’s new physical bookstores, which they take issue with because they’re run algorithmically and don’t employ booksellers. At the London Book Fair in March, Johnson live tweeted the pitiful traffic to Amazon Publishing’s booth, which some weirdo decided to set up directly across from Melville House’s.

Amazon isn’t the only big kid that the small team spends their days needling online — their tweets work in tandem with the revived MobyLives blog, where everyone on staff takes turns dissecting issues around publishing, politics, and culture. They had words for Marvel after it blamed declining comic book sales on its more diverse roster of superheroes. And for Hachette Australia when it wanted to tattoo a dragon on a real woman’s back to promote the latest Girl with the Dragon Tattoo installment. And for Simon & Schuster when it offered Milo Yiannopoulos a reported $250,000 for a book on free speech.

(…)

At Tate Britain

Nicholas Penny for the London Review of Books
penn02_3909_01

Nicholas Penny on Ford Maddox Brown and some of the little-known masterpieces at the Tate Britain. 

Roger Fry, when comparing the Pre-Raphaelites with the Impressionists, described the artistic innovations of the former as an insurrection in a convent, whereas the latter were real revolutionaries. The simile may have been unconsciously prompted by an elaborate and highly finished drawing of hysterical nuns entangled with fanatical Huguenots who are disentombing the body of Queen Matilda. This drawing by the young Millais is currently on display in an exhibition at Tate Britain of Pre-Raphaelite works on paper (until 7 May). The calculated confusion of rigid and angular figures, although it owes something to the medieval art cherished by the nuns (some examples of which feature in the background), can’t simply be dismissed as revivalism. Such a thorough determination to avoid being in any way easy on the eye or the mind may once have seemed a peculiar by-product of the reactionary antiquarian ecclesiology of the late 1840s but it now seems to anticipate (although it clearly didn’t influence) the daring aesthetic discomforts devised by ‘Modern British’ artists, even the wiry, tortured sculptures of a hundred years later by Lynn Chadwick or Reg Butler.

This drawing, and the finished study by Millais for Christ in the House of His Parents (also of 1849) which hangs beside it, are familiar enough to students of British art, but the exhibition, which has been very little publicised and is rather hidden away at the east end of the Clore Galleries, includes several little-known masterpieces. The most startling of these is Ford Madox Brown’s watercolour of 1863, entitled Mauvais Sujet, of a young teenage girl who is not so much engagingly naughty as alarmingly bad. The tight format derives from Rossetti’s early oil paintings of female heads and shoulders, such as Bocca Baciata of 1859, paintings of a frank sensuality free of the narcotic eroticism and religiosity that make so much of his later painting seem repellent. But Brown’s schoolgirl subject hasn’t yet led any artist into temptation. She is seated at a high desk with names and doodles scratched on its hinged top. We see the lines she has been made to copy with her quill, black lines which rhyme with the disorder of her hair. Her teeth – brighter than the white of her collar, the plume, the paper or the enamel inkwell – are biting into a brilliantly green apple. Fruit would certainly not have been allowed in the classroom and this young Eve, whose dress is also green, eats it with resentful defiance. The picture has the compositional ingenuity and thrilling compression of Brown’s great circular painting The Last of England – a compression, here greatly enhanced by the original double frame, that we miss in his later work, although he was always attracted both by defiance and by teeth.

(…)

 

Will London Fall?

Sarah Lyall writing for The New York Times, photography by Sergey Ponomarev
London

Writing for The New York Times, Sarah Lyall explores London’s future as a multicultural capital in the wake of Brexit:

London may be the capital of the world. You can argue for New York, but London has a case. Modern London is the metropolis that globalization created. Walk the streets of Holborn, ride an escalator down to the Tube and listen to the languages in the air. Italian mingles with Hindi, or Mandarin, or Spanish, or Portuguese. Walk through the City, the financial district, and listen to the plumbing system of international capitalism. London is banker to the planet.

London is ancient yet new. It is as much city-state as city, with a culture and economy that circulate the world. London manages to be Los Angeles, Washington and New York wrapped into one. Imagine if one American city were home to Hollywood, the White House, Madison Avenue, Wall Street and Broadway. London is sort of that. 

Modern London thrives on the idea that one city can be a global melting pot, a global trading house, a global media machine and a place where everyone tolerates everyone else, mostly. The thought is that being connected to the rest of the world is something to celebrate. But what happens to London when that idea unexpectedly falls away?

(…)

London’s Overthrow

An Essay by China Miéville
sign

In London’s Overthrow, China Miéville ambles through the layers of a London of squatters and decay, glass towers and golden dragons; and where they collide.

Shove your hands in your pockets and set out. In London in winter it’s nearly pitch at half past four. By six, you’re in the night city, and in backstreets you can be alone for a long time.
Some chance conjunction of latitude and climate: in this city artificial light cuts darkness like nowhere else. There are no trees like these, streetlit up, fractal cutouts. When you were a kid you ran through this bluster and raindrops so tiny they were like dust falling in all directions, not just down, and missed it even while you were in it. 
There’s been a revolution in remembrance. Digital photography’s democratised the night-shoot. One touch at the end of a sleepy phone call on your way home, you can freeze the halo from streetlamps, the occluded moon, night buses, cocoons shaking through brick cuts, past all-night shops. Right there in your pocket, a lit-up memory of now.

This is an era of CGI end-times porn, but London’s destructions, dreamed-up and real, started a long time ago. It’s been drowned, ruined by war, overgrown, burned up, split in two, filled with hungry dead. Endlessly emptied. 
In the Regency lines of Pimlico is Victorian apocalypse. Where a great prison once was, Tate Britain shows vast, awesome vulgarities, the infernoward-tumbling cities of John Martin, hybrid visionary and spiv. But tucked amid his kitsch 19th Century brilliance are stranger imaginings. His older brother Jonathan’s dissident visions were unmediated by John’s showmanship or formal expertise. In 1829, obeying the Godly edict he could hear clearly, Jonathan set York Minster alight and watched it burn. From Bedlam – he did not hang – he saw out his life drawing work after astonishing work of warning and catastrophe. His greatest is here. Another diagnostic snapshot.

‘London’s Overthrow’. Scrappy, chaotic, inexpert, astounding. Pen-and-ink scrawl of the city shattered under a fusillade from Heaven, rampaged through by armies, mobs, strange vengeance. Watching, looming in the burning sky, a lion. It is traumatized and hurt.

The lion is an emblem too
that England stands upon one foot.

With the urgency of the touched, Martin explains his own metaphors.

and that has lost one Toe
Therefore long it cannot stand

The lion looks out from its apocalypse at the scrag-end of 2011. London, buffeted by economic catastrophe, vastly reconfigured by a sporting jamboree of militarised corporate banality, jostling with social unrest, still reeling from riots. Apocalypse is less a cliché than a truism. This place is pre-something.

(…)

 

Fitz Carraldo Editions