Search for ‘Rosemary Hill’ (4 articles found)

Gucci Man

Later, “these trousers”

Newman’s immensely enjoyable book ranges from the 19th century to the present and rearranges the literary canon with abandon to illuminating and sometimes comic effect. Organised like an extended magazine feature it has sections on ‘Signature Looks’, which include ‘Glasses’, ‘Hats’ and ‘Suits’, the latter bringing Gay Talese and T.S. Eliot into unlikely proximity. There are also pull quotes with such fun facts as that Jacqueline Susann’s ambition as a schoolgirl ‘was to own a mink coat’, and in the early 1970s Samuel Beckett used a ‘now classic leather Gucci hobo holdall as his day-to-day man bag’. Beckett, Newman suggests, would have been an ideal model for Comme des Garçons and with that thought in mind a photograph of him gazing out in moody monochrome looks for a moment like a page from a Toast catalogue.

The juxtapositions are playful but not trivial. The relationship between the work and the clothes is discussed but not laboured. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the women and the gay men make the most interesting studies. Simone de Beauvoir, whose silk dresses, turbans and perfect manicures bore witness to her willingness to undertake what she called ‘the work’ of fashion, says in The Second Sex: ‘dressing up is … a uniform and an adornment; by means of it the woman who is deprived of doing anything feels that she expresses what she is.’ Sartre, wearing a suit on the beach at Copacabana, looks dreary beside her. John Updike in his dull dad jumper feels like a token inclusion, Hunter S. Thompson naturally stands out. His Hawaiian shirts and safari suits became so recognisable that Gary Trudeau turned him into the demonic Uncle Duke of Doonsbury, much to Thompson’s chagrin. As he said, ‘nobody wants to grow up to be a cartoon character.’ On the whole, though, it is those writers who saw the potential of clothes to create an identity and visibility that society would conventionally deny them that are the most revealing. This was the impulse that propelled Quentin Crisp, ‘blind with mascara and dumb with lipstick’, through the ‘dim streets of Pimlico’. ‘Sometimes I wore a fringe so deep that it completely obscured the way ahead,’ he recalls. ‘This hardly mattered. There were always others to look where I was going.’ Edith Sitwell’s huge jewellery and flowing robes, which gave her the appearance of ‘a high altar on the move’, were also the result of a desire to turn the tables on the world. Made to feel self-conscious about her appearance as a child, as an adult she ensured that everyone else should be conscious of it too.

At Tate Britain

‘Portrait of Lord Clark as a young boy’ by Charles Sims (c.1911).

In part ten of Civilisation, Kenneth Clark turned his attention to the Enlightenment, the age of the great amateurs. These were men ‘rich and independent enough to do what they liked’, who nevertheless did things which required considerable ability, men like Lord Burlington, the architect earl. A connoisseur, an ‘arbiter of taste’, Clark explained, ‘the sort of character who these days is much despised’. The same might be said of him, as the slight smile suggested.

Civilisation, broadcast in 1969, had been filmed over the previous three years. Clark and his crew had found themselves in Paris in May 1968 in the thick of the événements. His producer, Michael Gill, recalls ‘riot police … just off-camera’, adding, laconically: ‘I was gassed.’

Despite being so apparently out of sympathy with the temper of ‘these days’, Civilisation was hugely popular. Now, when even more of what Clark stood for – connoisseurship, private patronage, direct state patronage and the life of the country house – has disappeared or is disapproved of, the Tate’s richly thoughtful exhibition Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation (until 10 August) is another unlikely success. Though he was one of the most scholarly and intellectually flexible of art historians, Clark remained committed to the idea of aesthetic pleasure. Certain combinations of words, sounds and forms were his ‘chief joy and comfort’, and the sense of enjoyment is allowed full play. The first impression is of beauty and variety, from small Bow porcelain busts to drawings by Cézanne, all pieces Clark owned, commissioned or promoted. But an exhibition which has as its subject a single person who was not an artist must create its own structure and argument. A broadly biographical arrangement sweeps, as did Clark’s career, through the heart of the 20th century.

Born in 1903, the only child of wealthy parents, he first appears aged seven in a portrait by John Lavery. Solemn in white shorts, broad-brimmed hat in hand, he stands in a darkly panelled interior, a glint of sunlight on the ormolu of the clock behind. The comfortable house, the endless summer outside, it is the Edwardian childhood idyll. Clark’s claim in his notoriously unreliable autobiography that his family belonged to the idle rich and that while many were richer ‘few were more idle’ is belied by the sprinkling of works from his father’s collection. Landseer, Lavery, Charles Sims suggest that Clark began life against a background of unadventurous but serious taste in painting.

He himself was omnivorous. Japanese prints, Aubrey Beardsley and the works of Ruskin were among his early and enduring enthusiasms. Like many only children he was at ease with his parents’ generation, and his first mentors, Roger Fry and Bernard Berenson, were both forty years older than him. ‘Roger made one feel far cleverer than one was,’ Clark reflected: ‘Mr Berenson made one feel far stupider.’ From Fry he took a belief in ‘pure aesthetic sensation’ and a love of Cézanne. The exhibition includes some of the drawings he bought in France in 1933 for ‘much less than a modest motor car’; a watercolour of the back of a chair, the crumpled cloth on the seat a landscape in itself; a sheet of heads of Cézanne’s son asleep. From Berenson he learned connoisseurship, the ‘gentleman’s sport’ of attribution.

It was in 1928 that what he later called the Great Clark Boom began, with an invitation to catalogue the Leonardo drawings in the Royal Collection. From then on he was a permanent presence at the heart of the national cultural life. At thirty he became director of the National Gallery, where he caused a stir by hanging Cézanne’s Montagne Sainte-Victoire next to Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère. His first book, another product of 1928, was on a quite different subject. The Gothic Revival discussed architecture that was almost universally thought ridiculous, a collection of ‘unsightly wrecks stranded upon the mudflat of Victorian taste’. Clark’s argument for considering it was that while ‘beauty is a historical document … a historical document is not necessarily beautiful.’ It was an intellectual manifesto that brought Fry’s aesthetics together with Berenson’s connoisseurship and the ‘geists’ of German art theory, with which, once the Warburg Institute was established in London in 1934, Clark was to remain closely connected. He changed his mind about Victorian Gothic, realising ‘almost too late’ that it had produced some great architecture. Yet the underlying question about taste and aesthetics that had prompted the inquiry remained: why ‘at certain times the average man can only look with pleasure at things of a certain shape and character’ was a conundrum to be profitably revolved for the rest of his life.

At the National Gallery during the war he compensated for the absence of the main collection, safely stowed in a disused slate mine near Blaenau Ffestiniog, by making it the venue for new work produced under the auspices of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, of which he was chairman. It was impossible, he said, ‘to paint great events without making use of allegory’ and the new allegories – John Piper’s firelit Coventry Cathedral, Henry Moore’s shelter dwellers and Paul Nash’s Battle of Britain – were shown alongside same-size photographs of absent Gainsboroughs and Uccellos.

Clark’s collecting and his patronage brought together objects of ‘a shape and character’ that still please. They also surprise by juxtaposition or selection, the broad comedy of Rowlandson, the tiny, fantastical detail of Robin Ironside and the receding golds and greens of an un-obvious Seurat, The Forest at Pontaubert. His preferences trace a line through English art from Gainsborough to Lucian Freud, making a rather pointed detour round the Pre-Raphaelites but spending arguably too long in what he himself called the ‘virtuous fog’ of Bloomsbury, represented here by an Omega dinner service intended to celebrate famous women, badly painted in lugubrious hues by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. The essence of what he believed, that art is ‘a long word which stretches from millinery to religion’, is captured in an unfinished portrait of Marie Countess of Schaumburg-Lippe by Joshua Reynolds. The face has been completed. Lost in intelligent thought, she looks just past the viewer’s eye. The rest is only blocked in except for an exquisite silver bow on the bodice. That Reynolds finished this himself before handing it over to his assistants suggests he thought it as important as the face and it makes the picture. The contrast of bright artifice with delicate flesh enhances both: the ornament, which is all surface, gives the portrait its depth.

After the war Clark became chairman of the newly established Arts Council and an enthusiastic broadcaster. By the time he made Civilisation he was presenting ideas he had developed, refined and defended over half a century, but the result is fresh. He has a better suit and worse teeth than can be seen on presenters today, but he neither patronises nor ingratiates. His firmly listed likes and even firmer dislikes – ‘lies, tanks, tear-gas, ideologies, opinion polls’, sociologists and the ‘rigidly controlled classification’ of academic specialism – make him a recognisable precursor of Jonathan Meades rather than Simon Schama. As the BBC contemplates remaking Civilisation, the exhibition shows what a hard act Clark still is to follow.

Rosemary Hill remembers Sylvia Kristel

Sylvia Kristel with Hugo Claus at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976. (Christopher Logue, out of shot, disgraced himself by mistaking Yves Montand for a waiter.)

Like many of my contemporaries I saw Emmanuelle in its much-censored British version at the Prince Charles Cinema off Leicester Square. I went with my first long-term boyfriend. We were both working in Foyles in our gap year, commuting in from Sevenoaks or thereabouts and I suspect that beneath the somewhat laconic discussion afterwards we were a bit shocked by it. I know for a fact that I was.

It must have been almost exactly ten years later that I met Sylvia Kristel when she opened her front door to me in Ghent. It was just after Christmas. Ghent, which I had never seen before, was looking like a scene from Breughel, the snow thick on the hump-back bridges over the canals, the cafes brightly lit and inside them tables covered with richly coloured Turkey carpets. I had just got married and was there with my husband, Christopher Logue. Christopher was an old friend of the Belgian writer Hugo Claus, with whom Sylvia had lived, on and off, since the 1970s. She looked at first sight a bit of a mess, hair on end, puffy eyes, and still in the afternoon wearing a lumpy towelling robe and big pink fluffy slippers, cigarette in hand. I was hugely relieved.

Since I’d first known Christopher he’d talked about his friend Sylvia. He was keen for us to meet as he felt she could help me. When Sylvia went shopping for clothes, he explained, she would take over the whole store and get all the staff fetching things for her, instead of cowering by the rails as I did, and when they’d been to France together she’d brought her own hair and make-up assistant and so had none of my ‘holiday hair’ problems. It was a while before I realised who ‘Sylvia’ was and that the trip to France had been to the Cannes Film Festival at the height of her fame. When I did work it out and put it to him that as a film star and world-famous sex symbol she could carry off things that were beyond me, I found Christopher touchingly oblivious to any difference between our circumstances. No, he insisted, Sylvia would like nothing better than to take me shopping.

Over the few days I spent with her we did not, thank God, go shopping, but we did talk. She was only mildly interested in me but she quizzed me a bit. After dinner once when I’d been speaking French she asked me rather sharply how old I was. Then she looked me up and down and said: ‘So young and so smart – but I think it’s better to be tall.’ It was said without malice in a tone of realistic appraisal by someone who had spent all her life weighing her own assets, working out how to deploy them and, perhaps, getting the answer wrong. She spoke at least four languages and was certainly smart. She was also funny in a faux naive way and would say things that made you wonder at first if she was witty or stupid, until she had said so many of them you realised she was witty, just not keen to appear so. That winter she was back with Hugo because her five-month marriage to the American millionaire Alan Turner had collapsed. She entertained us with accounts of its disastrous trajectory starting with the honeymoon, for which Turner had borrowed a friend’s house. Sylvia found it depressing with a lot of ‘dreary modern art’ which she had decided to cheer up by applying nail varnish to the pictures here and there. A subversive sense of humour turned out to be one of many things they didn’t have in common.

My initial relief about her appearance turned out to be ill judged as well as ill natured. I think Sylvia, at that stage in her life, found it amusing to look like a Dutch housewife who’d let herself go a bit. It was a role. When she wanted to look like a film star she could. It took a long time, there was a lot of hanging about before we went out anywhere, and some rushing in and out of the bedroom for more vodka, but when she was ready she was amazingly, traffic-stoppingly glamorous. She would quite often then decide she didn’t want to go out after all so we would stay home and eat at the kitchen table, like the three bears with a resplendent Goldilocks.

Sylvia and Hugo had a son, whom they called Arthur because they’d been reading The Once and Future King when he was born, and who lived mostly with Sylvia’s mother. When they had met Sylvia was a beauty queen. Hugo’s ex-wife Elly Overzier had also been a beauty in the style of Anita Ekberg, for whom she was sometimes mistaken, but when she got an offer to go into films Hugo’s left-wing writer friends were horrified and talked her out of it. Hugo was furious, he told me, and determined not to let Sylvia make the same mistake. By then the ageing enfant terrible of Flemish letters, he made a show of his cynicism rather as Sylvia flaunted her naivety. His was the more authentic performance. By his own account he was her benign Svengali, their relationship based on her wish that they should get married and his refusal to do so. Every so often they would have a row about it and she would go off with someone else. Then when that didn’t work out she’d come back to him.

Soon after our visit Hugo and Sylvia parted once more, this time pretty much for ever. I never saw her again. Hugo died in 2008. He had dementia and arranged to offend the Catholic Church one last time by opting for an assisted suicide, on Good Friday. Sylvia’s obituaries have dwelt on Emmanuelle. It was what she was known for, but she was also witty, intelligent, touching and of course tall.

In Camberwell

Not much happened in Camberwell during the riots. Morrisons was boarded up and there was some milling about on the Green one evening, but that was as far as it went. All around us, in Peckham, Brixton and at the Elephant and Castle, there was trouble, but this end of the Walworth Road, properly called Camberwell Road, was unscathed, or rather it remained scathed in the same way as before. From the Green northwards Camberwell presents a collage of changing use and disuse, a continuous Mexican wave of opening and closing shops and businesses, squats, pubs, charities and churches.

It is the religious missions and nail bars that seem to do best, especially the missions. You would not know, from the Camberwell Road, that this is a post-religious age. The Post Office closed twenty years ago and is still derelict. On the wall someone has painted ‘Help Us All’. Next door the last functioning cinema in the area was long ago turned over to bingo, but has recently changed again to become the Rock of Redemption Church, presently festooned with blue and white Christmas lights and the subject of many complaints from neighbours about loud singing and parking problems. Walking on past Mini’s Eye Lashes you come to the Redeemed Christian Church of God House of Prayer. Next is the Castlemead Estate, a humourless Harlow New Town type development of the 1960s with several shops, the architects of which should have known better than to attempt a pub. Flat-roofed modernist pubs never work and the always dispiriting Rock of Gibraltar went through a long period of dereliction before being refurbished in red and gold, to re-emerge looking much more convincing as the Camberwell Islamic Centre.

Back on the main road La Mediterranee Gourmandise, now boarded up, represents a short-lived attempt to bring patisserie to the kebab belt. It is now neighbour to the Christ Arena Ministries. The former Nationwide Builders Merchants is the shared home of the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministry and the Gethsemane Evangelical Ministry. Past the Blenheim CDP drug rehabilitation centre, discreet frontage but prominent CCTV, is the All Nations Evangelical Church and then after a brief secular interlude, which includes Iceland and the pet shop, comes the Power Church International, ‘a place of divine solution’.

This is all on the west side of the road. The east has a distinctly different tone, less excitable, more earthly. It too has its slogans though, which answer the west with the same extensive use of present participles. ‘Investing in Burgess Park’ Southwark Council says on some hoardings in front of massive excavations to improve one of the borough’s biggest open spaces. ‘Realising Potential Together’ Cambridge House says from behind some more hoardings. This, when it is fully open, will be the latest incarnation of the older mission culture that sent late Victorian idealists out from the public schools and universities into the inner city to fight poverty with education and better hygiene. This one was an offshoot of Trinity College and now accommodates several local bodies and charities in its warren of large late-Georgian houses.

These must always have been a rung up the social ladder from the smaller, rather earlier houses on the west and the distinction seems to have been transmitted into the 20th century and beyond. Opposite the hard-edge high-rises of Castlemead on the west, the postwar low-rises of the east are named to reflect the nobler aspirations of Beveridge. Keats House, Milton House, Landor, Pope and, surprisingly, Flecker look on sedately while over the way a banner above a closed junk shop shouts ‘Fight gentrification: Squats keep neighbourhoods alive’, a campaign whose first objective at least has been realised. Just beyond it The Nag’s Head, an old-fashioned pub with Edwardian faience tiles and an air of grimy determination, winks from the tinselled-up window: ‘Lushette’s party December 3rd come dressed as Santa.’