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Mar 20 / Simon

Master portrait painter

The London Magazine, Feb/March 2015
Simon Tait

Giovanni Battista Moroni
Royal Academy, 22 October 2014-25 January 2015

The gift of the true master portrait painter, said Sir Joshua Reynolds in the first of his Discourses, is the ability “to snatch a grace beyond the reach of art”. The great champion of making portraits as against landscapes and history painting believed that true genius is in the ability of the artist to reach into his subject and bring out something more than just a likeness. “It is then, when their genius has received its utmost improvement, that rules may possibly be dispensed with,” he warned students at his new Royal Academy in 1769, with the hint that in their case it would probably never happen.

It hit the arts establishment of 18th century London, such that it was, like a slap in the face – the very idea that this “art form” that actually was no more than vanity-commissioning for the very rich so they could themselves as gods and goddesses – could actually be compared with the majesty of Claude, the illuminating composition of Rubens, the profound mystery of Rembrandt. Unthinkable.

Yet it was nothing new, and Reynolds’s eventually successful case was no more than a rebirth of the cult of portraiture of the soul of a couple of centuries before. That had happened in a small town in northern Italy, with the brushes of a painter of whom little is known, whose name is seldom uttered, and who seldom strayed far from his own birthplace, Albino in Llombardy, before Caravaggio, before Van Dyck, long before Reynolds. This Royal Academy exhibition tells us, as much as is possible, how he did it. The question remains, though – how did he get away with it?

Giovanni Batista Moroni was born some time in the early 1520s the son of an architect. Much of his story is a mystery because he eludes that universally quoted guide to the pantheon of quinquecento artists, Lives of the Most Excellent, Painters, Sculptors and Architects, in which the word “Renaissance” was first used to describe the new spirit in painting of the period. Its author, the Venetian Giorgio Vasari, never ventured as far as Albino and as far as we know Moroni never went to Venice.

Where his early training was in the studio of Il Moretto, the nickname of Alessandro Bonvicino, at nearby Breschia, and with him Moroni had travelled to Trento at the time of the Council of Trent, the explosive embodiment of the Roman Catholic counter-reformation, when the future of the where he got kudos through religious painting, key examples of which are here.

They are beautifully made, with all the right symbolism and light spaciousness that distinguishes him at first sight from Moretto whose work is his reference. But they are lifeless, and although he is punctilious in using the same models for characters – St Catherine for instance, a favourite subject – there is no soul in these holy figures.

But Moroni also started to get portrait commissions, which show his rapid advance, from the frozen depictions of the Madruzzo family standing with their pets in formal fashion made around 1550, to the Carthusian Friar of four or five years later whose gentle features are relaxed in the act of speech; or Giovanni Luigi Seradobati of around 1559 in which the notary is relaxed, sitting in a chair with a book in his left-handed for which we have just distracted him to make look sideways at us.

He has found his second secret. The first was to paint straight onto the canvas without under-drawing, an unusual practice for the time that he probably got from Moretto; the second was to paint from the life or “al naturale”, also not common practice. You can see the difference graphically in the post-mortem portrait of Giovanni Bressani which is ill-defined with none of the vitality and integrity of his Seradobati.

Back in Bergamo Moroni’s star was reaching its zenith with the leading families all seeking him out and he was part of an elite group of intellectuals – poets, painters, doctors, lawyers.

But Moroni clearly has his likes and dislikes among his subjects. In 1560 he paints the Spanish Governor of Milan, the Duke of Albuquerque Gabriel de la Cueva, as a scowling thug gazing malevolently directly at the viewer. One of the leading literary figures of Bergamo society was Isotta Brembatti, but she is portrayed here as an uncomfortable frump dressed in an all-enveloping brocade curtain-like garment with a thoroughly kitsch pink and white fur reticule (or possibly and undersized fan) hanging form her wrist, and not reference anywhere to her poetic accomplishments.

Portrait of Doctor is clearly a mate though unnamed, who is given the sideways chair treatment to relax him, and looks genially at the viewer while in his left hand is a letter from the artist.

In the 1560s and 70s Moroni returns to religious commissions, but now with all the assurance of a master that allows him top be inventive with his composition. The Last Supper of 1566-69 in which he brashly seizes on the issue of transubstantiation, the very part of the doctrine that had divided the church. Christ if offering the bread while the apostles are in animated discussion (except for one, who appears to have fallen asleep on the Saviour’s shoulder). There are no haloes, and the chief figure is the win waiter, standing behind Christ with the flask that bears his blood, looking straight at the viewer and dressed in sober 16th century attire, clearly the patron of this painting who is given a place in the composition superior to that of Christ himself.

In the 1570s Moroni excels everything he has done before, instilling narrative in even the most uncomplicated image. The very poignant Portrait of Gentleman and His Two Daughters is subtitled The Widower, but the poignancy is in the characters: the elder girl gazing boldly at us in the Moroni way, bravely being the chatelaine in the absence of her dead mother; the younger girl confused and looking out to the left ; the seated man – probably a poet if the clue of the books on a shelf behind is anything to go by – with his arms protectively resting on his daughters’ shoulders looking bereft but determined.

And the mysterious tailor, unnamed but opulently dressed. The portrayal of tradesman at their trade, rather than in the garb of their guilds, is almost unheard of in the period, yet here he is, pinking shears in one hand, the edge of a bolt of cloth in the other.

But for me the piece de resistance is the Portrait of a Young Lady painted in about 1575, four years befgore Moroni’s death. IT is a glorious manifestation of all the skills of a master portyrait painter has accrued over a lifetime. The silk of her embroidered bodice glistens, the complexities of her heavy necklace with its gold tracery in which is nestling clusters of pearls; her crisply starched ruff with its intricate tracery casting light up into what should be a beautiful face. It is, but it’s a displeased face with arrogant dark eyes looking sideways at the viewer with annoyance, her full lips slightly pursed to let us know that this is an instant of momentary irritation the snapshot painter has caught. This is a young woman we know, whose flashing dark eyes we feel we’ve seen in jollier mood, whose haughtiness will dissolve into girlishness. This is a girl whose grace is beyond the reach of art, except for this artist’s.

Jan 28 / Simon

Pauline Yates

Actor who played the wife of Reggie Perrin in the hit TV comedy
The Guardian, 27/1/2015
The gentle good nature of the BBC’s anarchic 70s comedy The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin that made it such a hit owed much to the innocent yet tacitly conspiratorial support of Leonard Rossiter’s wife Elizabeth played by Pauline Yates, who has died aged 85. She was a spirit of domestic calm in the mayhem created by David Nobbs’s other characters, led by Rossiter as the erratic Reggie Perrin, whose bizarre behavior she treated as normal and beyond explanation.

The show ran for three series between 1976 and 1979, in the course of which Elizabeth became almost as serenely batty as Reggie. Practically a non-drinker, Yates needed a large gin-and-tonic at the end of each recording.

But with her husband Donald Churchill she was almost a route map through British television comedy in the 1970s and 80s, she acting in many of them, he acting too but more often writing.

She was a consummate comic foil, appearing in The Ronnie Barker Playhouse on ITV in 1968, but also took on central roles as the MP of My Honourable Mrs (BBC, 1975) and the divorcee finding a new life after marriage in Harriet’s Back in Town (Thames, 1972).

Away from the suburban conservatism of the Perrin household, Yates was a lifelong Labour supporter who swore liberally and sent her daughters to comprehensive school when she and her husband could well have afforded private education. Nonetheless, she thought nothing of splashing out on designer dresses when she was in funds, insisting on three rules: not buying anything in the sale, never taking anything back and never looking at the price.

Pauline Yates was born into a working class household in St Helens, Lancashire, the eldest of three daughters of Thomas, a commercial traveller, and Marjorie who ran a corner shop. She was determined to be an actor, much against her parents’ wishes. Leaving school at 17, her mother gave her an ultimatum: get a job within a year or go for teacher-training.

In two weeks she had found work as an assistant stage manager at Chorley Rep before moving on to weekly reps throughout the north and, eventually, London. She met Churchill in Liverpool in 1960 and they were married that year in Hampstead Register Office.

Yates was a skilled television performer before and after the role she is best known for. Her looks and ability to learn lines very quickly, a trick perfected during her years in rep, made her a popular choice for casting directors, and she was in ITV’s Emergency Ward 10 in 1957, the first hospital soap, and the BBC police series Z Cars and Softly Softly as well as making a number of appearances in ITV’s Armchair Theatre, for which Churchill wrote several plays. Later, she was in four series of the Thames TV sit com Keep it in the Family (1980-83) as the put-upon wife of a cartoonist (Robert Gillespie), and in 1985 appeared with Julie Walters in the film She’ll Be Wearing Pink Pyjamas as one of a group of middle-aged women at a survival school. Her last TV appearance was in the 2002 pilot for the ITV crime series Rose and Maloney.

On stage she was in the Liverpool Playhouse production of Pride and Prejudice as Mrs Bennett, and toured as Lettice in Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage [afraid I don’t have dates for these].

Domestic life in the Churchills’ Primrose Hill home could have been sit-com script. They loved to entertain and the house was often full of actors, writers and directors sitting around a drink-laden table gossiping and laughing. Yates could sometimes be found in the kitchen pouring wine down the sink to encourage the guests to go – “Time for them to FUCK OFF!” she would explain gaily.

True to his own working class roots – his father was an engine driver – Churchill was avid for bargains, and on Saturdays would wait until the end of the morning to go to Camden Market to buy cheap veg, or even get it free. He would return at lunchtime with his prizes in a whicker basket on wheels, “laughing to himself and imagining that he had beaten all the other writer residents of Camden Town such as Alan Bennett, Beryl Bainbridge and Jonathan Miller, and proudly announce he had bought food for the week for under two quid!” recalls their daughter Jemma, also an actor. Her mother would then surreptitiously slip most of it in the bin, replacing it with Marks and Spencer produce, while her father would surreptitiously retrieve it and make a stew that would last a week.

Acting was part of the household, and bedtime reading was an essential element of the day for Yates in which she would play all the characters. Her husband used to complain “I think you LIKE reading to her”, but for Polly, now a playwright and screenwriter, it was a nightly professional theatre performance which she regards as the most important of her education. She has written scripts for children’s television for 15 years.

Donald Churchill died in 1991 from a heart attack on the set of the ITV sit com El C.I.D. (Granada TV), a week before his 61st birthday.

Pauline Yates died in her sleep at Denville Hall, the actors’ care home. She leaves her two daughters and three grandchildren.

Simon Tait
Pauline Lettice Letts, actor, born 16 June 1929, died 21 January 2015

Oct 8 / Simon

Open channel

Classical Music, September 2014
High in the Urals, east of Moscow, work begins shortly on a £160m new theatre as a second venue for the 145-year-old Perm Opera House, which recently played host to a Greek-Russian descent into the Underworld. Simon Tait reports

The house was full at the start, as it always is in the Perm Opera House and Theatre, but not by the time this particular world premiere was over. Some left during the performance, noiselessly and politely, some went as the curtain calls were being taken making more of a point, while others, stunned by what they had just witnessed, applauded wildly, and in the end the depleted audience accorded the production the Russian compliment of rhythmic, co-ordinated clapping.

What they had seen was a new kind of opera, a blend of artforms that the general manager of the theatre, Marc De Mauny, describes as “as much an arts installation with sound as a musical piece”, combining music, but also visual art, dance and sonic effects, with heavy references to classical Greek tragedy. The Financial Times described it as a “Gesamtkunstwerk bringing together voice, orchestra, ritual theatre, imagery and dance”.

The music by Dmitry Kurlandsky is atonal, with a chorus of 40 ranged on either side of the stalls voicing not words but sounds that are almost primeval. The libretto is by the Greek poet Dimitris Yalamas and the set is designed by another Greek, the arte povera conceptual artist Yannis Kunellis. The director, also Greek, is Theodore Terzopoulos, who has also devised the choreography that uses 30 dancers from the Perm company.
Perm is a city 700 miles east of Moscow high in the Urals whose reputation is growing as a cultural hub. The piece revives the long dormant reputation of the opera house by its 42-year-old Athens-born artistic director Teodor Currentzis, who three years ago was brought by the Perm regional government from the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre in Siberia’s capital where he had been principal conductor for six years. It is the Musica Aeterna Ensemble that he founded in Novosibirsk, that provides the chorus.

The idea of Nosferatu took five years to bring to fruition and the production, Currentzis says, is a genuine joint Greek-Russian creation. He commissioned first the librettist and then the composer, and the full team evolved, each component devoted to the concept of taking a classical story and giving it a current context. The Kunellis set is sparse, with eternal symbols – coffins, knives, books – filling the whole backstage space and changing with each of the three acts.

The narrative, Currentzis explained, is based on the Persephone story and her descent into the Underworld with Hades. But it is an allegorical use of the story and some of the methods of the Athenian theatre of Aeschylus whereby we can read “our horrible world”, he said. “This is a message for future generations,” he added. “If we were to go back to Aeschylus’s theatre for a moment I think we would be absolutely shocked – it is not the theatre we’re used to now, it would be a completely different type. The past is a link, it’s a carrier of truth for us.”

Nosferatu, sung by the baritone Tasos Dinas, represents the human propensity for corruption which, Currentzis says, is no less horrific now than it in ancient times.
“Today”, he says, “we drink champagne and we’re happy; just one week go I had news from a friend in Yemen, in a civilised city, with a photograph of a girl of eight, a bride, and this girl had died from sexual abuse on her wedding night. That is how horrible our world still is”.

The 850-seat theatre was built in the 1870s by an affluent community, and survived through Stalin’s empire. In the Second World War the Kirov Ballet, now the Mariinsky, was evacuated here for four years and created a ballet school, so that Perm Ballet is now the third most important classical dance company in Russian after the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky itself. Its state subsidy is worth 90% of its income and it is open six nights a week for opera and ballet, playing to houses of between 85% and 100%. Ticket prices start at about £1.70.

Perm, the city and the district, were depressed and the former governor, Oleg Chirkunov, saw its future in contemporary art. He brought in Currentzis who in turn recruited his friend De Mauny, an Englishman who had trained with Currentzis at the St Petersburg Conservatoire and had been running a Baroque music festival there which he had founded.

They have persuaded the funding authorities that the opera house needs a second venue,. And work began in August on building the £160m Diaghilev Theatre next to what will be renamed the Tchaikovsky Opera House, named for the composer who was born a couple of hundred kilometres from Perm. Designed by the British architect David Chipperfield, the 1100-seat Diaghilev – the founder of the Ballets Russes spent his childhood in Perm and his grandfather helped fund the original building – is expected to open in 2016.

Nosferatu is the first manifestation of a future of programing that will include avant garde dance and opera as well as favourites from the more traditional repertoire. The production has been made possible by the support of the Stella Arts Foundation, set up 11 years ago by the wife of a Russian millionaire businessman, Igor Kesaev.

“We are not concerned with politics in this country or social issues, but very much with philosophy, and that is what was attractive about Nosferatu,” Stella Kesaeva says – a long-time admirer of Kunellis’s work. After two performances in Perm in June, the production is to be seen in Moscow in April at the Bolshoi Theatre.

The composer, Kurlyandsky, says that he had to forget everything he had been taught to create the score, to the extent that it wasn;t entirely clear which bars were his and which came from one of the other collaborators.

“Therefore,” says Currentzis, “there are elements of this production that are still a mystery for us. I hope it can develop and unfold itself later – it’s an open channel for us to explore more and more.”

Oct 8 / Simon

Ramblers uncover secret war bunker

The Times, 27-9-2014
Simon Tait

The entrance to a hole in the ground in a Wiltshire woodland is hardly visible, even after the undergrowth has been cleared away from the rusted metal grill, but it is the gateway to a Britain where Nazi Germany has invaded, where ordinary civilians have become underground guerrillas, nocturnal saboteurs and spies, where clandestine radio stations are manned by female officers, reportedly nicknamed “Secret Sweeties”.

Germany’s invasion never came, but the largest of the subterranean radio stations in the intelligence network set up in the Second World War – “Super Zero Station” – has been discovered and has been scheduled as an ancient monument by English Heritage to protect it.

“The role of the Auxiliary Units in the Second World War is one of the relatively little understood and untold chapters in our national history,” said Tony Calladine, acting head of designation at English Heritage. “Those men and women who were trained to resist invading forces in what would have been its darkest hour, for little or no recognition, are celebrated in this designation.”

So secret was the system that eventually covered the coasts south and east from Cardiff and north to Caithness that little detail is known about the GHQ Auxiliary Units (Aux Units) set up by Winston Churchill in 1940 before the Battle of Britain, and even less about the men and women who served in them. Their existence was “Most Secret” and kept on a “need to know” basis.

Aux Units was divided into two sections, the Operational Branch guerrillas (Ops) who were largely civilians specially trained and living in underground bunkers of which over 1,000 are thought to have been made; and the Special Duties Branch, the vital communications system in 155 stations manned largely by women in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, of which the station uncovered in Wiltshire is the most refined.

Those who served were never recognised for their work, though they were kept in continual readiness until after D-Day in 1944, fully aware that if caught they would be handed to the Gestapo. Ops recruits were enlisted into the Home Guard and could eventually claim the Defence Medal, but the 3,250 Special Duties civilians could not.

The British Resistance Archive, which seeks out Aux Units survivors and their families, has managed to help many get their medals and also included some surviving volunteers in the 2013 Armistice Day parade at the Cenotaph for the first time. Its founder, Tom Sykes, hopes some wireless operators may join the parade this November.

There were 125 out-stations from which operators in the community would send their information, many of them in mundane hiding places such as in bell towers, down wells or inside church altars. One sophisticated outstation complete with maproom has been found intact under an outdoor Devon privy, accessed with the help of a bewildering complex of pulleys, counter-balances and switches.

Their messages would go to one of 30 in-stations, or Zero Stations, operated by the “Secret Sweeties”, Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) officers. Their ATS commander, Beatrice Temple, writing in her personal diary, called the Wiltshire base the “Super Zero Station”, and The Times has been asked not to identify its whereabouts. Super Zero is between three and four metres deep, three metres wide and 10.3 metres long – three times the size of other Zero Stations, the whereabouts of half of them are already known. Its escape tunnel is 22m long.

David Hunt, a retired Royal Signals colonel who has made military archaeology his speciality knew of the existence of Super Zero from references in policy documents held in the National Archive, but not its whereabouts until local woodland walkers stumbled on it a year ago and Col Hunt was alerted. He knew immediately what it was and applied to English Heritage for its protection from treasure hunters.

“We had been building these underground stations since 1940 and this one was not made until about 1943,” said Col Hunt. “It was the ‘best of breed’, the most sophisticated, and they had to be concealed so that anyone walking above would be unaware of what was beneath their feet. Whereas most in-stations would be manned by three ATS officers, this one could have accommodated nine, and would have had a generator and been provisioned and with enough fuel for 21 days, completely closed down. The dugout had various layers of security for the entrance and a 30 m escape tunnel together with a sophisticated ventilation system.”

Super Zero was part of an “inner network” serving HQs up to Army Southern Command, controlling the south-west corner of England, nothing operational was written down in the interests of secrecy, and the specially adapted VHF wirelesses. Its aerial leads were concealed inside the bark of nearby trees.

But the Super Zero’s contents have still not been examined. “This control station in Wiltshire is particularly rare and fragile, to the point where we could not gain access to the interior”, said Mr Calladine. “These structures are dangerous and should not be sought out, especially on private land where trespass is illegal”. This particular one is also thought to have dangerous asbestos and to have become the habitat of protected bats and needs to be made safe before it can be examined, but in consultation with the owners of the property English Heritage intends to examine Super Zero as soon as possible

Aux Units was kept at readiness throughout the Second World War until after D-Day, and in July 1944, Special Duties were quietly disbanded. But their burrows were not destroyed; their entrances were concreted over and concealed so that the special construction and security techniques developed over four years would not become public – in case they might need to be used somewhere in the uncertain post-war future. The special wireless sets, designed by radio amateurs serving in Royal Signals, were all removed and destroyed to keep their “privacy technology” and no records survive. Even today the secrets of how it worked are still not fully understood.

“We can only speculate about what was in Churchill’s mind, but war is unpredictable and no-one knew what would happen, or even who the invaders eventually might be,” said Col Hunt. “These were left, operable but with their equipment removed, so that what had been achieved was not forgotten, and just in case.”

“We continue to protect, where appropriate, structures that tell fascinating stories related to many aspects of our national heritage, some of which are featured and explained on our Heritage Highlights pages (,” said Mr Calladine.

Sep 16 / Simon

Favourite themes taken from life

Art Quarterly, Summer 2014
Simon Taitcelebrates a book focusing on Rembrandt’s sources of inspiration

Rembrandt’s Themes: Life into Art; Richard Verdi; Yale University Press; £25

If you want the essence of this book at a glance, look no further than the frontispiece. The illustration Richard Verdi and his publishers have chosen is not one of the savagely honest self-portraits Rembrandt made throughout his life, nor the exploration of the tragic Titus – did a father ever know a son so well? – nor the glimmering landscapes (though some of the more intimate portraits appear towards the end of the book). It is a simple etching of indigent travellers at the door of a rather grudging householder who is dropping a few coins into a hesitant-looking palm, because these are not habitual mendicants but ordinary people fallen upon hard times. This is Rembrandt the man speaking.

Verdi hurries into his subject leaving behind the biographical facts he assumes we all know – for the record, Rembrandt died in 1669 aged 63 – along with his best known works, old ground not necessary to cover again. He is searching the life of the man looking back from the difficult later years when he was out of fashion and lack of commissions and penury forced him to look deep into his own psyche and powers of invention for his narratives. These are Rembrandt’s best work, and Verdi ranges back through his career to find their sources.

The book sprang from a series of lectures Verdi gave in New York the mid-80s to accompany an exhibition of Rembrandt etchings. He skips aside the arguments of attribution that have dogged Rembrandt scholars in recent years, and brings the gaze of a non-expert, he avers, to bear on relatively few works connecting them with what was happening in Rembrandt’s imploding life. His 1654 version of Bathsheba, contemplating David’s letter summoning her to his bed, has Uriah’s wife almost lasciviously proclaiming her nakedness and with the features of his mistress Hendrickje, the very year in which she was summoned by Amsterdam’s church council three times to answer charges of “acting like a whore”, presumably for living with the painter out of wedlock. He’d been here before: Hendrickje appears as Bathsheba in a much smaller version with a more modest nudity, an arm across her breast, a gauze kerchief in her lap, the year after Rembrandt’s wife Saskia had died.

Biblical stories were Rembrandt’s favourite themes, despite the Netherlands’ Calvinist church forbidding sacred imagery, and he returns to them for his uncommissioned work, but with slightly different takes on the familiar tales. He choses to make a drawn version of the Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt, for instance, which has them preparing to leave, not actually en route as they are more usually depicted, and Verdi returns to the theme of this subject which Rembrandt painted almost throughout his life. More than two dozen versions survive and in none of them are the figures formally posed in the traditional manner.

Rembrandt, like Durer before him and Hogarth later, made ends meet by creating etchings he could make prints from, and Verdi has found an important influence on him in his home town of Leiden in Lucas van Leyden whose drawings and prints he collected from his 20s. They gave Rembrandt a source of subject matter as well as instruction in this very particular and technically complex form, and it is in these black and white works on paper that Rembrandt commands the high drama if narrative, such as his 1653 etching The Three Crosses. Verdi acknowledges, too, the debt Rembrandt owes to his teacher in Amsterdam Pieter Lastman for his painting and to his fellow Lastman pupil Jan Lievens with whom he worked back home in Leiden, working up themes between them in their own styles.

So biblical themes seem to have dominated Rembrandt’s creative intent throughout his career, despite the religious strictures of Holland at the time, and Verdi shows us the artist’s development through them from his formative Leiden years in the 1630s but skipping past his fame to the painful final decade when, for instance, his 1654 etching, Presentation in the Temple, another favourite theme, is so sparingly drawn and so poignant as to make the drawing move in the imagination.