The Taxidermist’s Daughter: Kate Mosse

I have to admit I’ve never read any of Kate Mosse’s work, but I was drawn to her new novel The Taxidermist’s Daughter by it’s intriguing blurb…

Is Constantia who she seems – is she the victim of circumstances or are more sinister forces at work? And what is the secret that lies at the heart of Gifford House, hidden among the bell jars of her father’s workshop?

The Taxidermist's Daughter - Kate Mosse

I found it quite disjointed to begin with, possibly due to not having the time to get into it properly. However, the tale begins with and delights in the technicalities of Contantina’s trade (AKA: Connie), learned from her father who was once one of the best taxidermist of the time. Despite detailed descriptions of taxidermy, as Connie works on her recent Jackdaw project Mosse manages to create a romantic atmosphere with descriptions that are fascinating as opposed to repulsive. Since a mysterious event that has left Connie with no memory of the past the plot involves her mind recuperating after events 10 years previous.

As her memory slowly returns she meets her love interest Harry and soon after strange things begin to happen in the village. The body of a girl is discovered at the bottom of her garden and along with looking after her alcoholic father Gifford, Connie is subject of whispering’s and rumors in the village. Along with the traditional folklore still rife in Fishborne The Taxidermist’s Daughter has the feel of more of a Victorian pastiche. It has a wonderful feel to it, as the mystery unfolds the pace quickens and the sense of menace is never far away. Climaxing with a devastating storm, I could quite literally envisage the rising water and feel the battering wind, the final pieces of Connie’s jigsaw are put together and her memory returns. The true terrors of what happened 10 years ago are revealed.

The characters within The Taxidermist’s Daughter are easy to identify with, making the macabre turn of events even more shocking. I didn’t see it coming and despite being slow in some places Mosse has created a ethereal Gothic thriller full of intrigue and mystery. Throughout the book excerpts from a taxidermy manual, detailing the methods used in the preservation of specimens are quite distracting from the story and a tad unnecessary – Mosse’s writing needs no tricks. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Taxidermist’s Daughter, I just wish I had read it quicker!

If you liked this you may also like The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton.

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Maggi Hambling painting from 'Walls Of Water'

A Wall Of Water: Maggi Hambling At The National Gallery

Maggi Hambling’s current exhibition at The National Gallery, titled ‘Walls Of Water’ (26th Nov – 15th Feb 2015) has received a mixture of reviews since it’s opening. Notably from Jonathan Jones who said in the Guardian…

What is art for? This is a question Hambling appears never to have asked herself. Her paintings are acts of egotistical imperialism, with no purpose except to claim space for themselves.

Quite a damning review (read the rest here). I read this whilst in The National Gallery coffee bar right before I went to see ‘Walls Of Water’ in the flesh and I have to say I agree (sort of). I live near Hambling’s beach sculpture ‘Scallop’ which has been defaced by graffiti several times since it’s installation in 2003 and I happen to quite like her past works so I had high hopes for this new exhibition. Consisting of 8 paintings measuring over 6x7ft and one smaller piece ‘Walls Of Water’ is inspired by Hambling’s musings from the sea wall at the Suffolk seaside town Southwold. She pictures gigantic waves crashing against the seawall and says…

The crucial thing that only painting can do is to make you feel as if you’re there while it’s being created – as if it’s happening in front of you.

However, I was left feeling pretty flat when confronted with the large pieces. Created from 2010-2012, I have stood many-a-time on the windy beach and pier at Southwold where Hambling would have experienced the waves and perhaps even on the same day and I have seen how wild it can get with the coastal winds. ‘Walls Of Water’ however, are empty, they do not evoke the drama and emotions felt when experiencing the wilds of nature and they remind me more of our great British rain rather than waves. There is no obvious concrete sea wall, just a white expanse behind the Pollock-esque drips and Monet like blurriness.

It’s as if Hambling has pulling out every trick in the book to create these, including Van Gogh style brush strokes and abstract dribbles in the foreground and yet they seem to lack impact and fail to evoke any real emotional response. There is something a little bit contrived and too controlled about their creation. They look interesting in these small images (below) but when seen in the flesh it’s very clear that size isn’t everything.

Maggi Hambling 'Wall Of Water'

Maggi Hambling with two Walls of Water paintings at National Gallery, London

Maggi Hambling 'Wall Of Water'

I think the thing that lets the exhibition down is writing about the contemporary parallel between Hambling’s ‘Walls Of Water’ and the seascapes by Peter Balke (1804-1887) which are shown only a few rooms away. They just do not compare.

Peder Balke 'Nordkapp'

In ‘Walls Of Water’ Hambling has apparently hidden outlines of animals and even made a homage to Amy Winehouse. Why?! What is the point in this? What does Amy Winehouse have to do with the drama and power of our coastline? The only animal form I could see in one image was a white splodge that could have been Jemima Puddle Duck which yes, made me laugh but just shows how feeble the artwork really is. Can you spot Jemima? I would say if you are interested do go and see the show but don’t expect to be bowled over, I certainly wouldn’t pay to see it.

Maggi Hambling painting from 'Walls Of Water'

For more inspirational art and features on Brogues In A Coffee Bar click here and don’t forget you can see updates and follow me on Twitter!

John Keane Painting 'Hopless In Gaza'

REALITY: Modern & Contemporary Painting at The Sainsbury Centre

Perhaps one of the best exhibition’s of contemporary painting that I have ever seen. I’d like to introduce to you REALITY: Modern & Contemporary Painting at The Sainsbury Centre. I feel privileged to live so close to this stunning museum that is linked to The University of East Anglia, the collections at The Sainsbury Centre represent some of the most remarkable works of art spanning an astonishing 5000 years of history. From ancient Greece and Roman artefacts to important works by Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti. However, in this new exhibition curated by Chris Stevens REALITY: Modern & Contemporary Paintings celebrates the strength of British painting from the past 60 years in an uncompromising and direct display of artwork from the small oil painting to larger than life canvases. Featuring an all British cast of artists such as: Bacon, Lowry, Lucian Freud, Stanley Spencer and David Hockney all of the artists exhibited in REALITY are committed to creating figurative work which tells a narrative. They have explored the world as they experience it and without dwelling too much on the clichéd stereotype of the starving artist each piece of work shows a harshness and truth to the world that is unsurprisingly quite uncomfortable to be confronted with. As it says in the exhibition catalogue, which is a stunning publication in it’s own right…

REALITY draws us towards the more gritty substance of both the everyday occurrences and strange imagines scenarios – each one of them leading us to an experience that is every bit real.

I love a bit of realism to shake off the cobwebs! The artist’s in REALITY have the amazing ability of detach from their subject matter whilst revealing it completely. They’ve stripped off the polish of how British life is portrayed and have given it back it’s actuality. I am sure most of us are aware of what it thought to be typically British… Tea, crumpets, bunting and cute summer fetes. However, what stands out most in REALITY is the artist’s sense of humour whilst they play with the reality of what it truly means to be British. I have to admit I won’t be featuring my favourite paintings (namely by artists Anthony Green, Phillip Harris and Clive Head) in this review – they deserve a post all to themselves, so instead I will talk about the true essence of the exhibition. Realism, fear, mortality and poverty.

 One of the first pieces you’re confronted with in the entrance to REALITY is ‘Hopeless In Gaza’ by John Keane. Emerging from a larger project consisting of observations made when travelling through the occupied territories of Israel. He has used photography under painting to create a blurred effect, as if you are actually standing in the scene being shaken by the bombs. A boy is being shielded by the man, making it a harrowing image to look at. This sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition…

John Keane Painting 'Hopless In Gaza'

By far the most distressing painting for me shown in REALITY is the piece above by Carel Weight, titled ‘Fury’ (1961). In quite a large scale Carel Weight encapsulates a moment of childhood fear that everyone has been through. Whether the two boys pictured running have been caught in a mischievous act or not, they are painted running away from an enraged man wielding a club. As a police man approaches one lad stumbles in his escape. Doesn’t it evoke a feeling of humiliated panic? As well as showing Britain’s urban landscape in the early 60’s the scene is timeless, perhaps evoking those wayward childhood memories.

Carel Weight Painting 'Fury'

Another large painting on display which conjures up the British sense of humour is the piece below by Alan MacDonald. Painted only in 2013 ‘Spam Dragon’ (below) on the surface is strange. When one looks closer witty paraphernalia from modern life is juxtaposed with people and scenery from the past, perhaps the heyday of British painting. However, smoke ruins the distant landscape and there is that feeling that something is just not right.

Alan McDonald Painting 'Span Dragon'

And talking about the weird and wonderful, Ken Currie’s ‘Dirty King’ (below) certainly is a very uncomfortable painting to look at. Ken Currie has a nack of creating ethereal figures and ghostly scenes. You know the subjects are there and yet you question whether they are real people, there is a hazy glow around the apparition reflected in ‘Dirty King’. Is he bathing in luxury? Has he fallen from grace? The ‘Dirty King’ seems to be treading in something not very nice and his bald patch certainly reveals a grisly side to royalty. An overwhelming feeling of pity came to me when taking in this painting, followed by a unsettling ghostly feeling. Not something I would usually feature on Brogues In A Coffee Bar but certainly thought provoking…

Ken Currie Painting 'Dirty King'

The artists in REALITY tackle a diverse range of subjects, referencing the body, relationships, history, politics, war, the urban environment and social issues. Despite these different references, the works are all united by two things – the harsh realities that have concerned key British artists over the decades and the simple act of painting. It shows that painting, as an art form is not dead there are so many comments now-a-days about art schools not specialising in painting but REALITY: Modern & Contemporary Painting really is a stunning exhibition.

Tickets are just £8 so there is no excuse to not miss it! Buy them here and find out more about The Sainsbury Centre on their website. I will be writing in depth about my other favourite artists featured here so keep checking back for more.

Dream Room V&A Installation

V&A Exhibition: At Home In A Dolls House

For those of you who are fans of The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (which I reviewed here) I have some exciting news… The Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood have a new exhibition opening on 13th December exhibiting some of the most prized and best-loved dolls houses in the UK. Titled ‘Small Stories: At Home In A Dolls House’ the exhibition will showcase the fascinating stories behind the dollshouse history and takes you on a journey through the history of the home as well as the relationships and people who live within them. It baffles me how The V&A have managed to condense there vast collection of dolls houses down to just 12 to exhibit in ‘Small Stories’ – the exhibition shows a range spanning 300 years of manor houses, Victorian town houses, high rise flats and even the humble suburban semi.

The V&A have resorted over 1200 miniature dolls house objects dated from 1712-2001 and these will be displayed alongside a specially commissioned art installation called ‘Dream House’. 19 contemporary designers have been commissioned to create their very own miniature dream room, complete with people and a fully decorated miniature interior. What a fantastic idea! The designers involved, namely Katy Christianson and Molly Meg (see their dolls houses below), and many more have decorated their own rooms and as a finale for the exhibition they come together to form a larger installation. The Museum of Childhood says…

 Many of the dolls’ houses in the Small Stories exhibition were made as ideal spaces, or fantasy rooms. In miniature, we can experiment freely and try things otherwise not possible. So for Dream House, designers were asked to think about their own desirable rooms – aspirational, fantastical, whimsical, technological, practical or historical.

 I have *GOT* to go and see this! A new book has also been written by Halina Pasierbska to accompany the show (this can be purchased at the exhibition for £14.99) and for those of you who follow the wonderful author of The Miniaturist on Twitter (if not, why don’t you?!) she has confirmed that she will be opening the exhibition. Apparently, one of the creators of the early dolls houses got into so much debt making her miniature town she had to rely on charity from nuns to live!

Small Stories: At Home In A Dolls House will run in London until 6th September 2015 so theres plenty of time to make sure you don’t miss out. The museum are also holding events throughout the exhibition such as: a fun tour of haunted dolls houses.

For more inspirational art and features on Brogues In A Coffee Bar click here and don’t forget you can see updates and follow me on Twitter!

The Last Runaway

The Last Runaway: Tracy Chevalier

It’s been a while since my last book review,apologies! After reading The Miniaturist, with it’s rich and colourful scenes of 1686 Amsterdam, I was drawn to the very famous novel by Tracy Chevalier ‘The Girl With The Pearl Earring’. Having enjoyed Chevalier’s bestseller I then decided to go on to her most recent novel, The Last Runaway. Going into this novel with an idea of Chevalier’s work – I think her highly visual writing is hypnotic, I was immediately drawn into The Last Runaway.

Set in the 1850’s modest Quaker Honor Bright travels from Dorset to Ohio with her sister who is due to marry. The optimistic and already heartbroken Honor (her relationship in quintessential England has broken down) soon encounters her first stumbling block upon the ship crossing the Atlantic. Crippled by nausea she lands on American soil sick with her own preconceptions. As she travels by stage coach Honor encounters an unsavory slave hunter and soon her beloved sister’s life and comfort is tragically taken from her. It is here that we see Honors character really flourish and an in built resistance to her new life begins to emerge.

She is taken in by an unusual character who runs a millinery shop just outside of the town where she is due to meet her sisters fiance. Unaware of his soon to be wife’s death Adam Cox retrieves Honor where she is relieved to be out of the way of the strange going’s on of Belle Mill’s shop. In her new alien land Honor soon marries a dairy farmer and becomes accustom to the Ohio way of life, from it’s animals, botany and food to it’s different Quaker traditions. She discovers that principles count for nothing and her opinions on human rights are vastly different from her new family’s.

Written around the time where hundreds of runaway slaves are travelling up from south America to freedom in Canada Honor is drawn into the clandestine world of The Underground Railway. Does she disobey her husband by hiding and helping the runaway slaves? Or does she turn a blind eye? She soon decides to act on her true principles and with the help of two defiant and brave women Honor becomes fully embroiled in the illegal Underground Railway.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, despite being exciting and unpredictable it is calming and has a lovely easy flow to it. Showing life in 1850’s wild west America, complete with it’s dirt tracks lined with spit to the daily lives of farm workers through the harsh winters. What really stands out though is Chevalier’s portrayal of the relationships between Honor (a privileged English lady), Belle Bills (a wild at heart, unmarried seamstress) and Mrs Read (a free black woman).

The Last Runaway is a powerful journey brimming with drama and colour. I have to say the book allows you to picture lush greens, mustard coloured sunlit fields and grey’s with pastel yellows. There is not anything in particular that makes this book unputdownable, I am still trying to figure out exactly what it is, but the character of Honor Bright is real and sympathetic. I felt for her and wanted to jump in to the pages to warn her of oncoming dangers. From somebody who doesn’t know about the Quaker way of life, with Chevalier’s endless research, The Last Runaway brings an important time in American history to life. However, I did find the use of “thee” and “thou” a tad annoying but see what you think… Buy The Last Runaway here. I’d love to know your thoughts.

Horrorstor

Horrorstor: A Novel by Grady Hendrix

Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Columbus, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring wardrobes, shattered Brooka glassware, and vandalized Liripip sofa beds—clearly, someone or something is up to no good.

To unravel the mystery you are drawn into the unusual world created by Grady Hendrix, this book is a real unique feast for the eyes. Set out in the form of a popular Swedish furniture catalogue it is not instantly recognisable as a novel. It would draw anyone who happened to notice it on your coffee table and despite the quite large text which I didn’t get on with in the beginning, it immediately becomes unputdownable. Complete with illustrations of flat-pack furniture as well as a shop floor plan and other mysterious contraptions (see below) I devoured this book within a day, a record for me.

Set in a new branch of furniture giant Orsk (a cheaper knock-off store selling Scandinavian interior design) it is a very visual book that almost anyone who has been to Ikea can identify with. Within the store employees begin to notice odd things happening, from stuff moving around over night to soiled sofa’s. So what better way to investigate and create a traditional ghost story? An over night stakeout of course! A bit cheesy you might think? No, I found Horrorstor utterly terrifying and there are many unexpected twists along the way.

A group of employees are volunteered to do the overnight shift and sweep the warehouse floor, full of room layouts, corporate signage and weird shadows. Amy, the sarcastic college drop out who clearly doesn’t want to be there and Ruth, the employee of the month goody two shoes stumble into two of their colleagues conducting a ghost hunt. Complete with EVP (thats electronic voice phenomenon for those of you not familiar with TV series Ghosthunters) and infrared cameras.

As strange things begin to happen and inevitably the group split up, the store begins to move before their eyes the real terror begins. It becomes apparent that the Orsk megastore is situated on the site of an old penitentiary who’s phantom inmates still inhabit the building.

Initially, I wasn’t enthused by the stereotypical characters however, as the story progresses the characters develop. In particular the relationship between Amy and her unlikable swot line manager Basil. I found myself rooting for them and whilst some Orsk employees don’t make it out alive and I found that this book well and truly got into my head. I’m sure I won’t ever feel the same when visiting much loved Ikea.

Publishers Quirk Books say:

We promise you’ve never seen anything quite like it!

Author Grady Hendrix certainly does not disappoint. I can see this novel being used to create one of those scary but slightly satirical horror films and that’s definitely not a bad thing. Buy your copy here.

For more inspirational art and features on Brogues In A Coffee Bar click here and don’t forget you can see updates and follow me on Twitter!

The miniaturist - Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office-leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

Immediately, The Miniaturist (written by Jessie Burton) delves into the lives of seventeenth century Amsterdamers. Nella’s new marriage and household is not what it seems and after several lonely nights confined to the splendour of her new lavish bedroom Johannes, a respected member of the VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or, in English, the Dutch East India Company) presents his new wife with an unusual wedding gift. A cabinet sized replica of their home which is based on the real thing housed in The Rijkmuseum till this day. I was there only a few weeks ago (see what else I saw here) and the dolls houses displayed in the world famous museum really are haunting. Jessie Burton takes inspiration from the 2.5 metre tall dolls house and creates a fascinatingly complex world which has gripping plot and is deeply atmospheric. I could NOT put it down!

 To furnish her gift, in a resentful protest Nella employs the services of the miniaturist – an elusive character who spooks with her miniature characters and objects that mirror the Brandt’s private life in an eerie way. With several shocking twists the story evolves at an exciting pace and Johannes gift allows Nella to delve into the secrets of her household, whether she likes it or not.

There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed . . .

Readers can instantly connect with Nella and other key female characters Marin and Cornelia, as they are strong females. With Burton’s clever and colourful words the women, clad in their noble costumes, are very much alive. They are outspoken and I thought more akin to that of a 21st century twenty something female. I think it is Burton’s history within the theatre that allows this fantastic book to be so visual. Amsterdam in the late 1600’s had a lot of social development to do, particularly when it came to racial and sexual issues. The people of Amsterdam even eat sugar in secret! As Nella’s world unravels with eye watering scenes of bigotry she becomes more and more obsessed with the miniaturist’s observations – or are they predictions? Does the miniaturist hold the Brandt’s fate in her hands?

It soon becomes apparent that along with the mysteriously changing miniaturisations of her life, Nella has to navigate and learn about her new cut-throat world fast and she truly comes into her own. Despite this book being written alongside a miniature world it is far from small – It is everywhere but I must say the hype around it is well worth it.

Buy it now and even follow the author Jessie Burton on Twitter here. For more inspirational art and features on Brogues In A Coffee Bar click here and don’t forget you can see updates and follow me on Twitter!

Julie Cockburn

Threads: Textile In Art & Design

So, as you probably know I have been a bit quiet of lately. I’ve had a well deserved holiday exploring the south of The Netherlands. I traveled through Amsterdam to Utrecht, Eindhoven, Helmond, Nijmagen and Arnham and have fallen head over heals for the country! Visiting many galleries and museums including the obligatory Rijkmuseum, of course. However, my favorite of the week was at The Museum Of Modern Art, Arnhem…

 I was lucky enough to arrive in Arnhem on the last day of the exhibition called Threads: Textile In Art & Design. A multidisciplinary exhibition exploring more than 20 international artists and designers who experiment with the medium of thread and textiles.

 Among others the work of Julie Cockburn and Chiharu Shiota caught my eye. Julie Cockburn is a London based artist who embellishes found photographs using delicately applied threads. Her work takes second hand objects and, using creativity, imbues them with beauty, colour and value. When I saw her small scale works from the other side of the room I was instantly captivated.

Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota’s installation titled “Life Of Thread” is an imposing web of stretched threads which creates a tension and labyrinth that is intended to represent the different life choices we have to make at different intersections throughout life. Chiharu’s work centers around the theme of memory, dreams and fear.

As well as being a secure cocoon it certainly made me feel anxious, as if you would get sucked in if you walked too close to the web. In the center of the web there is a vintage sewing machine that seems to be creating the thread, showing that perhaps sometimes our choices and thoughts can become entangled and complicated.