Remember when I talked smugly about how easy I found it to get rid of my books when I moved back to my mum’s? Remember that I said I was going to be sticking to a one in-one out rule from now on? Well. I think we all knew how that was really going to turn out.
A few weeks ago I went to a wonderful study day at the V&A on the subject of the pre war artist Eric Ravilious. The talks were fascinating, and I left feeling so much more knowledgeable about pre war British art and the circle surrounding Ravilious. I love Ravilious’ paintings, which are so effervescent and yet so intriguingly subversive. At first they seem so cheerful, so colourful, so 1930s…and yet on closer inspection, the inclusion of often incongruous elements amidst his pastoral landscapes makes you stop and think again about the true message he is trying to relay. His paintings convey the sense of uncertainty of the period in which he was living, and the more I learn about him, the more intrigued and admiring I become. I couldn’t resist, therefore, picking up another beautifully illustrated edition of his paintings by James Russell from the V&A shop. This volume focuses on his travels across the UK and France in search of suitable painting locations, and every page is a delight! If you’re after a special Christmas present, this would be a great one to put on your list.
During the talks on Ravilious, James Russell discussed how Ravilious and his artist friends, such as John Piper and Edward Bawden, were products of the 1930s boom in the domestic tourist industry, taking great pleasure in exploring the country widely in order to find picturesque painting spots. Cars had become plentiful and much more affordable for ordinary people, and the road network had expanded accordingly. With this increased accessibility to the countryside came an enthusiasm for exploring and appreciating the British landscape. The production of a range of books and travel guides on the country for the intrepid tourist fuelled this interest amongst ordinary folk, and one of the most famous of these was H V Morton’s book, In Search of England, which documented the author’s road trip through the highways and byways of England. Listening to the talk, I imagined Ravilious sitting on a little stool on the edge of the South Downs, painting the scenery with a copy of one of these guides in his pocket. I have no idea whether he read In Search of England, but I was intrigued to see what H V Morton had to say about an England that must have changed beyond recognition in the last 90 or so years, so I duly ordered myself a copy. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but just from the gorgeous dustjacket, I know I’m in for a treat!
All this absorption in the 1930s has made me hanker for a bit of Nancy Mitford, and when I spotted a lovely old Penguin paperback of Pigeon Pie, a Mitford I’ve never read, I couldn’t resist. The literature of the 1930s is such a fascinating mix; the sort of domestic cosy fiction of Persephone, high modernism of the Virginia Woolf type, and the Bright Young Things, sharp tongued wit of the aristocratic writers like Mitford and Waugh all echo such different sides of a decade that is criminally overlooked. While some were busy touring the countryside, others were living it up in the Cafe de Paris, and it’s good to explore more than one side of the story! As soon as I break up for the Christmas holidays, I am looking forward to curling up and enjoying a Mitford-fest; I have Christmas Pudding to get stuck into, too!
Another book I am looking forward to curling up with over Christmas is Wilkie Collins’ Armadale. I love a bit of Victorian sensation fiction, but it’s incredibly hard to find in second hand book shops for some reason, unless you want a copy of East Lynne, which is ten a penny! I had a sensation fiction fest a couple of years ago, but haven’t touched any since, so I was delighted when I spotted a copy of Armadale on the £1 shelf at my favourite book shop. Many people say its villainess, Lydia Gwilt, is Collins’ finest character, so I’m intrigued to read all about her!
Last but not least on my pile is Wives and Stunners, a biography of the women behind the pre Raphaelite movement, by Henrietta Garnett, grandniece of Virginia Woolf. I acquired this after seeing the Pre Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate, which I mainly enjoyed for the incredible Burne-Jones paintings. The more I learn about the pre-Raphaelites, the more fascinated I become by their complicated, rather dramatic lives. However, I don’t know much about the wives and muses of the men behind the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, and I think this book will serve as a very good place to start. If I don’t have too much marking to do over the Christmas holidays, hopefully I’ll have time to immerse myself in this as well!