Local deliveries and mail order

Are you running out of reading material in lockdown?  If you are in Kenilworth, I can deliver some second-hand books to you.  There will be a charge for this of £10 for a bag of six books or £5 for three books/children’s books, but the money will go to my fundraiser to help musicians who have lost their livelihoods during this pandemic and get no government help.  (See my earlier post, Here the arts are freezing…)

If you are not in Kenilworth and would like me to post books to you, I can send a box of four novels (fiction only, I’m afraid) for £10 inc p&p, with the proceeds after postage going, again, to my fundraiser.

These will be, essentially, surprise packages.  You can give broad likes and dislikes, but I can’t do individual requests easily – our stock is limited at the moment.  But we have loads of books, and people really ought to be reading them rather than have them locked in a shop!


‘Here the arts are freezing…’

A video that says more than my post yesterday about why I am raising funds to help musicians during the loss of live concerts and gatherings.  Please watch, I know the lighting is still terrible and I’m still in my dressing gown, but it’s all heartfelt!

The quotation in the title of this post is from the 16th century: it’s from a letter from the humanist scholar Erasmus to his friend Sir Thomas More, in which he introduces the painter Hans Holbein to him and asks him to find him work in England, because the Reformation is bringing a loss of opportunities to artists in Germany and Switzerland.  500 years on, the arts are freezing again, because of COVID-19 and the lack of a government response to the financial needs of independent artists and investment in the arts generally.  Watch the video for more!

Please consider giving £5 to my fundraiser – and if you can’t (and I know some can’t!), then please share the Ko-Fi link listed below.

Here are some links:

The article about the letter to the UK government signed by 400 people across the arts.

My fundraiser through Ko-Fi to give a small amount to musicians.

And below the graphic by musician Jon Wilks, mentioned in the video, showing ways that you can help – I also mention subscribing to their YouTube channels, the video explains how that helps.

help musicians jon wilks

Support live music

Fleetwood Cave at the Tree House Bookshop

Here are some ways that you can support musicians:

Buy their music – via Bandcamp or the artists’ websites (they get most money from those sales)

Subscribe to their YouTube channels – it’s free, easy, and when they get to 1000 subscribers they can do more with their channels, including monetising them

Share stuff on social media – their posts, their online streamed gigs, their websites, their YouTube channels, etc.  Anything to keep your favourite musicians in the public eye.

If you are on Facebook, join the Folk Corona page, which has auctions from musicians of all sorts of things, from private tuition to merch bundles to original artwork, all sorts.

Support our Ko-Fi fundraiser– £5 is the minimum, but if you can spare that (and I know some can’t), then do support us in our attempt to raise funds to donate to musicians – initially those whose gigs at the Tree House had to be cancelled, then others after that.

Consider joining Patreon accounts for musicians you love, if they have one – usually from as little as £3 per month, for which you get various things they offer exclusively on Patreon.

Follow them on Spotify.  The platform pays them absolute peanuts, but following them raises their profile.

Some are offering online music tuition, commissions of new tunes, and other things.

Be proactive. Check out musicians’ websites and social media pages and see what they are up to.  Keep promoting their music.

If we want live music to survive this crisis, we need to keep supporting musicians now.  You may not be able to support them financially, but subscribing to YouTube channels and sharing posts and links on social media is free, quick, easy and good for keeping their music and their hopes alive.


Buy a musician a coffee! #MusicMatters

Morning all.  I was going to post a video, but it was too awful, so you are spared!

I have set up a Ko-Fi account to support musicians at this difficult time.  Gigging/touring musicians have lost their livelihoods and their way of life: all their gigs have been cancelled, including summer festivals, and so they have lost their main income stream.  It’s not just about money – they have lost their way of life too, virtually overnight – but it means they are struggling financially, without any sense of when they might be able to give live concerts again.  Some are doing live streams, but that is not for everyone, and even for those who are doing them it won’t replace more than a fraction of their income.  And for others, it’s something they feel very uncomfortable with – a gig is an encounter with a live audience, not just sitting in a room playing to a camera.

Even when the rest of us start to go back to places of work, social distancing may be in place for quite some time to come, so it could be next year before gatherings such as concerts can take place again.  Many musicians fall through the cracks of government provision, even for self-employed people.

So this is a start in terms of helping.  Initially I want to give something to the musicians whose gigs I had to cancel at the Tree House: seven gigs in all, involving ten musicians.

The way Ko-Fi works is that you donate the price of a cup of coffee (though I have set it at two cups, surely they deserve that!), though you can buy them as many cups of coffee as you like.  (It’s not real coffee.)  I have set the initial target at £1000, to donate something to these ten musicians; when that has been reached, I will help others.  Every time we reach £50 I will give it to one of the musicians and do that twice, then move on to giving a bit to others.  It’s a tiny thing, but all I can do financially at the moment – and the more we raise, the more I can give!

So if you love music, and especially if you have enjoyed live music at the Tree House and would like it to happen again in the future, please donate if you can, and if you can’t (I know it’s hard for lots of people!), please share the link.  There is a button on the right hand side of the home page here for anyone who visits the website.

These are our musicians (one has said they have a full time job and doesn’t need their share) – we have a gig in June that looks likely to be cancelled as well as these:

Samantha Whates

MG Boulter

Wes Finch

Burning Salt

Tobias ben Jacob

John Elliott (The Little Unsaid)

Ruth Angell and Sid Peacock

Jenny Sturgeon

#MusicMatters #brokenrecord


Kenilworth Reads: let’s get reading!

I have chosen a book for us all to read together.  Of course you don’t have to live in Kenilworth to join in!  The video is over-exposed again, will sort out the lighting, and may even get dressed next time…  The book I have chosen is The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly.  Watch the video for more info!


Welcome to lockdown!

New website to replace (temporarily, I hope) the Tree House Bookshop one.  Books, music, art, films and more.  The video explains and introduces – I am a bit over-exposed, sorry!  Probably better that way…

This is a website I used to use for art history stuff, hence various things already here which I will leave for now (removed some other stuff).  I have called it Kenilworth Reads for reasons I will go into next time; for now, I just want to introduce the website.  Please watch the video!


What is truth?

Hans Leinberger, St James, c.1520-25, limewood, traces of pigment (Munich, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum)
Hans Leinberger, St James, c.1520-25, limewood, traces of pigment (Munich, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum)

St James sits solidly and ethereally against the wall and gazes faraway, faraway towards the window. He thinks both inside and outside himself at the same time. He is never cold – his voluminous cloak ensures that. The folds of his cloak both envelop and draw attention to the book on his knee – the book he has written, the book with which his sensitive, vital fingers play. Perhaps he is missing the other figures with whom he once stood in community. Yet this is a turbulent time – Luther has published his ninety-five theses, may by now have been excommunicated, gone into hiding, presumed by many (the artist Dürer included) to be dead…yet what he has set in motion is not hiding or dead, it is about to tear Europe apart. St James ponders. What is truth? What is the Bible, of which he wrote a small part? What does the future, the end of that faraway yet focused gaze, hold? In the meantime there is art – the art that sees in a tree trunk a human form, a human mind, a spiritual reality, a means of expressing the depths of the human condition and the world in which we live. Art that takes these ideas and combines them with physical skill to create beauty and endless fascination – follow the lines of the carving, across the surface, into the depths, through and around and along the almost abstract patterns that are formed that prevent uniformity but create a cohesive whole. The silhouette is strong and simple; the facial expression is both introspective and outward-looking but calm; all the maelstrom of time and space and human emotion are contained within this calm exterior in those swirls and folds and vortices of carved drapery. The whole thing has a gentle sway. Rooted by those shoes – my Birkenstocks are a homage to those shoes! – held together by the beautiful face, the expression, the hat – and pivoting around those exquisite hands that bring our attention to the book, the centre of a star.

Who was Hans Leinberger? We don’t know. He melts in and out of our consciousness via a couple of brief documents and the fragments of his genius. That such great art exists without biography is in many ways a fabulous thing. Our celebrity-driven culture wants to know more, but we are denied – we are forced to look at the work of art, not the man who made it – the art is itself Leinberger’s surviving autobiography, and we need to know no more about him. A contemporary of Michelangelo…that’s one context. The final flourish (fioritur…) of a sublime tradition in German sculpture, yet not the swansong of anything – something this powerful transcends, defies such neat historical categorisations and chronologies.

There is more to say (always). This large sculpture looks so solid, and yet it is all an illusion – a surface that plays with our visual and emotional and intellectual responses. It is indeed carved from the huge trunk of a lime tree – but that trunk has been hollowed out, and what we see is really a kind of relief carving on a curved surface.

leinberger 3

It would have been attached to an altarpiece, and no one would have been reminded of this – today we can see the truth. But what is truth…?

What is an artist?

Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait with a Fur Collar, 1500 (66.3 x 49cm), Alte Pinakothek, Munich

I don’t intend to answer that question…perhaps there is not in any case a complete answer. I recently saw an advert for a job making sandwiches at Subway – the advert was for a ‘sandwich artist’. I laughed at the pretentiousness – but there is indeed an art to making a good sandwich. Eric Gill defined art as skill – but much is talked today about whether skill, in the sense of craftsmanship, is essential to being an artist.

I specialise in an era when craftsmanship was very much part of being an ‘artist’ – I put the word in inverted commas because it is a modern term, anachronistic to the Renaissance, the period I have researched. Even Vasari’s famous book is often mistranslated as The Lives of the Artists – when its actual title is The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. The mistranslation is interesting; partly because it misses out the sense of ‘most excellent’, which was crucial to Vasari’s (and his culture’s) understanding of what art was. This brilliant and seminal work in art history continues to be misunderstood by some, but has lost none of its relevance to discussions about art. However, I am not going to discuss Vasari here! Others have done it much better.

I am going to discuss someone closer to my heart, the German painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer, and specifically his great self-portrait of 1500, now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. If I could own any painting in the world, it would be this; every time I see it I cry, every time I see it I feel closer to the man himself, every time I see it I am astonished all over again at its immediacy and its depths. It is a smallish painting, simply the face and upper body of a specific individual, dark – lots of brown and black, and darker than most of its reproductions convey – yet it contains the universe, and radiates meaning.

It is, for Dürer, the culmination of his project of self-portraiture in the 1490s. He first painted himself in 1493, as a young man on the threshold of marriage and adult life, a compelling mixture of tentativeness and glamour; this painting now hangs in the Louvre, tucked away in a dismal little room with the Holbeins and other German art, tolerated but not much more by this great gallery. The second painted portrait dates from 1498, by which time, we believe, Dürer had been to Italy; 1498 is also the year in which he published his series of woodcuts of the Apocalypse, the first ‘artist’ to publish his own work in this way, fully exploiting both the commercial aspects of printmaking and the fears of the general population, who thought the world might end in 1500. It made his reputation at an international level, and the glorious portrait, now in the Prado, represents a new confidence, elegance, cosmopolitan aspirations. He is dressed in Italianate clothes (though I note from his hat that he is a fellow Newcastle Utd supporter), with the fine gloves of a gentleman (in none of the portraits does he refer to his profession – no paintbrushes or other accoutrements of his trade – though he does conceal the painting hand in the 1500 portrait, if you realise that he is painting in a mirror, and his left hand, hidden, is in fact his right), and through the window are the Alps, over which he has travelled in both directions, and which show his interest in the world beyond Nuremberg. For all his love of art, his greatest love (as witnessed by his journals) seems to be the natural world.

Dürer, Self-portrait, 1493, Louvre
Dürer, Self-portrait, 1498, Prado

Then two years later, all of this confidence reaches a new height – the 1500 self-portrait is like no other artist’s portrait we have seen to this point. In the north, portraits were generally painted in three-quarter profile, as his first two self-portraits had been; the only person who was usually painted full face in this way was Christ. This, as scholars have pointed out over the centuries, is deliberate; Dürer has, in fact, taken the fifteenth-century tradition of paintings of Christ, from Van Eyck through Rogier van der Weyden, Memling and Schongauer, the subject of my previous blog, and used them as the model for his own portrait, the features of which he has idealised. Arrogance? Blasphemy, even? No, I don’t think it’s either. I think it’s the ultimate expression of Christian devotion in the light of his acceptance of his great talents as a painter – the painter is divine, because creativity is divine – God is a creative being, indeed the Creator, and as man is made in the image of God, the painter is endowed with this creative part of the divine.

The painter is also an intellectual – Dürer wears the kind of clothes a humanist scholar of the day would wear. He does not, as I have mentioned, give any blatant reference to his profession – and yet the whole painting is as blatant a reference as he could make. The exquisiteness of the way his own likeness is captured, including the soft fur that he plays with, the curls of his long hair, of which he was so proud, the different texture of his beard, the light in his eyes (there is also a window painted in one eye, a convention of course denoting the eye as the window of the soul), all advertises his exceptional talent.

The gesture of the fingers stroking the fur collar combines the two. In images of Christ blessing such as the Braque Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden, Christ holds up his right hand, the first two fingers raised, the thumb bent; Dürer has simply turned this gesture round so that he is pointing to himself – acknowledging his God-given gift, the blessing he has received, but also asserting his own individuality, his own personal skill and calling, its sacredness and its intellectual importance. At a time when painters were at the mercy of patrons and contracts, paid according to the price of materials and often anonymously working in workshops, Dürer is calling for the status of the painter to be much higher. A few years later he will write from Venice to his great humanist friend, Willibald Pirckheimer, that ‘here I am a gentleman, at home a parasite’. He believes in fine craftsmanship – the entire painting bears witness to this – but he also believes in the intellectual status of the painter, something we might take for granted today, but which was radical in his own time.

Rogier van der Weyden, Braque Tripych, 1452 (41 x 136cm), Louvre

[As a conduit from Rogier to Dürer, since Dürer knew his work intimately, I offer Schongauer’s drawing of Christ blessing, no doubt copied from Rogier:]

Dürer’s self-portrait continues to speak across the centuries of the power of art, both in terms of skill and concept, object and ideas. It connects us with a single individual, but makes a claim for all artists. We can look into the eyes (though he does not directly look back at us – perhaps his oce concession to being Christlike but not Christ) of one of the greatest of all western artists and see his greatness, while at the same time being reminded of all that art can and continues to do, even in a very different society. Art is not peripheral, not trivial, not a hobby or a luxury – it is an extraordinary and essential part of who we are as human beings, and how we communicate with each other. One small portrait, oil paint on wood, painted over 500 years ago, conveys all of this and so much more (I could go on, but I won’t!) with a visual economy that is inspiring, deeply satisfying, breathtaking.