Nicky Charlish

December 2013

A hierarchy nevertheless

Despite attempts by the centre-left to rebrand British values towards those held by what would eventually be described as the metropolitan elite, part of Britain yearned for old certainties, while a number of men relished the clear-cut masculinity displayed in nostalgia for the Second World War, and novels about the SAS (one wonders if that was true for some women, too).


The power of the playful

As the varied and sometimes disturbing contents of this selection hints, there was more to Klee’s work than met the eye. He didn’t simply want to be some kind of amusing illustrator. Rather, he envisaged his work to be a reflection of transcendence and we can see him almost striving to get beyond the outward and visible to the inward —the essence of existence — in his ‘Static-Dynamic Gradation’ (1923) and ‘Steps’ (1929).

Mixed visual messages

Perhaps the only lesson we can draw from the differing ideals summoned-up in these portraits - and the conflict which would destroy or change those ideals - is that neither presumption nor despair have a place in historical expectation. Human beings - either singly or socially - cannot exist without beliefs, and hopes for their fulfilment, but as to their outcomes; at the risk of suggesting a cliché, they must expect only the unexpected. But then, it is the best clichés that are true - usually.

Artists and gold-diggers

Looking at what’s on offer here, it’s easy to side with those who felt that, at the Momart fire - when, in 2004, a number of famous YBA works were destroyed by a conflagration whilst in storage - those artists got what they deserved for producing meretricious, attention-seeking work with which they could fool the public and make a lot of money whilst doing so. But the option of a simplistic put-down - attractive though it may be - is to be resisted in favour of a deeper analysis

Not everyone gets to the dance floor

1980s New Romantic clubbing was notoriously hierarchical: ‘would you let yourself in, dear?’ was the question every clubber feared as he or she awaited admittance, at the whim of a mirror-wielding club host, to their chosen place of pleasure.


Flamboyance and hard work

One thing, probably not intended by Webb, stands out from examining what’s on offer: the way in which fashion had, by the eighties, succumbed to what some might see as Modernism’s two defining principles; ‘sod the public’, and ‘will this go down well with my peers?’.

November 2013

Nostalgia and newness

Bowie owed his fame, arguably, more to his visual style than his music. His first job after leaving school was working in advertising and, while it’s easy to snipe at the morals and workings of that profession, it’s one which requires mental and visual skills for its practitioners. Bowie built on that early experience.

June 2013

The last throw of the dice?

Stewart mentions how the Conservative Philosophy Group, involving Cambridge academics such as Roger Scruton, John Casey, Maurice Cowling and Edward Norman, helped to build a bridge between High Tories and classical liberal economists. But there is no discussion about why the conservatives as a whole failed even to try to change the intellectual as well as the economic culture of Britain, or indeed, if they saw any need for a hearts-and-minds campaign on this front.

April 2013

The Batman of Pop Art

Whatever interpretation we place on Lichtenstein’s approach to his work, it is chiefly the early Pop material for which he remains famous and it makes the major visual impact in this exhibition. It leaves us with contradictory emotions.

The customary and the disturbing

It is, perhaps, ironic that that Man Ray — who participated in this movement which set out to challenge received social attitudes - could also produce photographs which are eye-catching, yet conventional. Perhaps he deliberately split his work into the customary and the disturbing, maintaining this juxtaposition of radically different things in a Surrealist spirit

February 2013

A deeper realism

Manet was too traditional for the supporters of Impressionism, too experimental for the traditionalists.

January 2013

Pieties eviscerated

In considering Westbourne Grove, he writes of its ‘empty launderettes, iffy supermarkets, sparsely furnished letting agencies, unreconstructed Indian restaurants, beer halls, booths offering rock-bottom price international phone calls, money exchanges, cheap carpet shops and heavily defended mini cab offices.’ With a complete lack of socio-babble we’re straight back into the Notting Hill of Colin Maclnnes’s early yoof novel Absolute Beginners, or the film Performance, as if the superficial sleekness of Cameronian gentrification had never existed.

October 2012

Fixed opinions?

Haidt wants his readers to understand - in the sense of comprehend (rather than empathise with) - moral, social and political views that differ from theirs. But this aspiration has a wider application than the field of American politics, and stating it is the main value of the book. There can be no effective debate without comprehending an opponent’s point of view.


Not just an also-ran

At the heart of metal-work lies skilled craft, with its need to mentally master and physically apply scientific knowledge - along with the unavoidable effort this entails. in other words, technical education is involved here and this is something which has, arguably, been neglected by educationalists since the end of the Second World War.

September 2012

Where cockroaches lurk

So far, so conventional — we might think. An injustice waiting to be resolved, a detective with a backstory of demons, all par for the conventional crime novel course. But this is where we make a classic detection error — leaping to judgement before all the evidence is gathered. In unfolding the story, Unsworth doesn’t simply deal with the issue of a possible wrong that needs righting. She leads us — with the aid of flashbacks to the time of the killing - on a journey into the underbelly of small-town life.

April 2012

Libraries: the case for books

23 writers tell us why public libraries matter. They do so against a background of library cuts (and dumbed-down education - more of this later). And they not only make out a good case for libraries but also for reading itself — a wise move, given the dislike expressed in some quarters about ‘privileging’ the book over other sources of information.

February 2012

Fascination, fear and excitement

Freud’s grandfather, Sigmund, attempted to examine and explain the workings of the human mind and helped to expand our understanding of them, including their more disturbing aspects. In a sense, his grandson followed in his footsteps. But instead of using the consulting room and couch, the younger Freud employed the studio and the paintbrush.

Can’t see the wood for the trees?

‘Three Trees near Thixendale, Summer 2007’, shows bulging trees leaping out towards us like boxers’ gloved fists punching towards their opponents, while ‘Hawthorn Blossom near Rudston, 2000’, shows these vast shrubs lining the approach to an arch, giving it an air of mystery.

A dab hand

The link between science, manufacturing, and the production and development of the day-to-day technology we take for granted, and whose loss we would note very quickly, is not widely recognised. Conran, with his reputation for artistic and profitable practicality as his calling-card, has a vital role in combating two centuries of neglect.

December 2011

The power of artistic orthodoxy

What they did share was a love of representational work and, one suspects, a bloody-minded determination to plough their artistic furrows however unfashionable - or unsettling - they might be. The unique nature of the contributions of each individual artist should be rigorously respected.

November 2011

Not the whole story

Hakim’s book becomes more problematic when, building on this fieldwork, she argues that the use of erotic capital by women will not only change their role but also help them get a better deal in both public and private life, so revolutionising power structures as well as big business, the sex industry, government and… well, almost everything.

September 2011

The hard world of the dance

Degas was aware of - and took an interest in – the scientific study of the human body which was in progress during his lifetime. The works in this exhibition show Degas’ attempts to try and capture the workings of the skin and bone which are the raw material of human movement.

August 2011

From silver screen to uncertain flickers

The word ‘Gods’ in the exhibition’s title is - possibly - the giveaway clue here. Although golden-era Hollywood was part of mass entertainment, its stars benefitted from working within an era when established hierarchies - church, state, parents, judiciary, politicians, academics - still dominated Western thought and behaviour: their power was taken for granted. Stars of stage and screen shared in this stratified system of authority: hence the almost ethereal glamour that the photographs here show.

July 2011

The edge of the coffee table

Lloyd’s tastes, while not cutting-edge, are not cosy. Yes, there are the striking but standard offerings we might expect. But there is also work which suddenly pulls us up short.

BooksVisual Arts
April 2011

Camp followers

In the face of remaining negative attitudes about the Victorians, the case for reappraisal still needs to be made. For enquirers who are yet to be convinced of the aesthetic movement’s positive work, this exhibition is a good starting point.

March 2011

Civilisation is power

This exhibition reminds us that international involvement and influence in Afghanistan are nothing new. Like Belgium and Poland it has - because of its geographical location - found itself an unwilling cockpit in world affairs, the fate of countries when caught between competing power blocks. It also shows that cross-border trade is a centuries-old activity: it helped to bring about the ideas and art which these exhibits exemplify.

February 2011

Citizen sculptors?

By raising the question of what constitutes sculpture, the curators may, unwittingly, have struck a hammer-blow against the idea of abstract sculpture which has of itself - and before it has garnered any associations - any use as a common reference.

October 2010

Change, decay, rebirth

This celebration of a long-standing Hungarian hunger for art is not simply a straightforward demonstration of artists’ skills, refreshing though that is: it is an artistic running commentary, as it were, on the intellectual and political ferment that Europe underwent from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century.

September 2010

Canned laughter?

Any work that doesn’t have a Romantic artist forcing it out of his tortured consciousness is seen as somehow invalid. But whilst Pop Art may have been loaded with varying degrees of well-meant pretentious theory by academics, at heart it is straightforward representational art which gives people something which they understand: and that is what they want to see.

May 2010

History, handbook and cautionary tale

As with any religious, political or social movement, the question arises: how many wanted to effect some form of radical transformation, how many wanted what they could get out of it for themselves, and how many wanted a bit of both?

April 2010

The Penn treatment

Penn’s pictures manage to deliver both less and more than they show. Most important of all, however, they remind us of an era when celebrity was conferred on solid achievement rather than on the ability to rise without trace.

March 2010

Don’t blame it on the Boomers

Can Willetts afford himself the luxury of reticence? This book is not just about a supposed inter-generational conflict. It’s really about the state of the nation. This topic should not invite despair, but nor should it simply breed good - but insubstantial – intentions.

December 2009

Stripping the Establishment

It would be easy to regard this novel as simply a walk down memory lane - albeit a scary one – with no contemporary relevance. This would be wrong. Unsworth has given us a template for writing about today’s political underbelly.

November 2009

Not too clever

Is Thorne correct when he writes of words that ‘make us English’? Do words - by themselves - make anybody anything? Words and meanings feed off each other in a complicated, unchoreographed dance of usage and association. As he shows with wicked itself, a word can undergo ‘ironic reversal’ whereby it changes its meaning.

The glutinous mud of the city

The construction of the Shell Building on the South Bank of the Thames, near Waterloo, caught Auerbach’s imagination. ‘Shell Building Site from the Thames’ (1959) shows a cable being lowered by a crane into the deep excavation that was carried out for this building. As the cable drops against a background of bright, light clay it’s difficult to stave off an attack of vertigo.

September 2009

Industrial resolution

One wishes the Civitas team well: it makes a compelling case. But it has a mountain to climb in attempting to rejuvenate - or, rather, resurrect - British manufacturing policy. Effecting change will not be easy, especially when it comes to the determined slaying of disparate sacred cows like equality legislation, laissez-faire, protectionism, and the all-must-have- prizes attitude which results in education lacking intellectual rigour

The daily doings of the domestic front

The exhibition gives us a sense of the calm before the storm which would be unleashed in the summer of 1940. But that’s not quite enough. It’s easy now - with hindsight - to look critically at the politics of appeasement which preceded the events commemorated by this exhibition, and the failure of politicians to stop Hitler. But we must remember that their actions were overshadowed by memories of the Somme.

July 2009

Strident solemnity

A backward-glancing Joe Orton shows the playwright exhibiting a defiance that looks camp but – as we know from his plays and diary – he was anything but wimpish. Painter Francis Bacon looks drunk and weepily belligerent, but you sense that he’s ready for another struggle at the easel depicting the red meat of human existence before heading-off to the Colony Room.

April 2009

A style that sings and dances

The exhibition takes us up to 1800 and no further. This is a pity, for it gives the impression that Baroque went out of use, and some might think that it also conveys the puritanical subtext that it was a soft, Southern thing, its decadence dooming it to decay and demise. This is wrong.

Local art for general people

Due to its location within a notable area of Jewish immigration the library was once known as the ‘University of the Ghetto’. With a newer immigrant community today facing its own challenges - arguably both from within and without its ranks - the symbolism of a combined library and Gallery would be highly potent.

March 2009

Artists and hustlers

The way the story of the Momart fire of 2004 is related with a bare minimum of commentary leads us to ask whether Muir considers the work of the YBAs to be so self-evidently good that it needs no defence: or is its commercial success justification enough without any reference to aesthetics?

BooksVisual Arts
February 2009

A discotheque called Crumpet

Another cause of decline may have been the demise of the attitudes symbolised by the BBC’s drinking culture: whilst in itself alcohol consumption isn’t necessarily conducive to producing good art, it indicates a pleasure-accepting, risk-taking, happy-go-lucky attitude which usually is.


The other side of the feminist coin

Maybe femmes will not only lead a leather-booted charge against the parochial stone walls of the LGBT ghetto but - by doing so - also give an example of stiflingly conformist constraints being shattered, so giving encouragement to people who wish to rip-up taboos in other, wider, public debates

November 2008

Constantinople, Constantinople! ..C’est I’empire du monde!

Constantinople was almost destined by its geography and history to be the seat of a great empire. And that was - arguably - a contributory factor in its undoing: everyone wanted a share of the political and economic action inherent in the city. 

Life through a lens

So the exhibition gives us the celebrity stuff we expect. Or does it? For the unexpected lurks here.

Gee, thanks Andy

Glam rockers, punks, new romantics and today’s more extreme street fashion club kids can all be said to be Warhol’s children.

Raw meat

It’s easy to dismiss Bacon as a gay schlock merchant and his work as a sort of story-board from a Hammer Horror film scripted by Oscar Wilde. An exhibition to mark the forthcoming centenary of his birth gives us the chance to re-evaluate this view

August 2008

Flexibility and firmness

A statue of Hadrian – showing a tough-faced Emperor with his left foot crushing a semi-prostrate barbarian - is graphic demonstration of his determination to maintain as much of the Empire as he could intact by whatever means necessary.

Whirligig of war

For Lewis, as for many others, the war had rendered the 1914 socio-political work order irrelevant; it was the left like the ‘old battalion’ of the wartime soldiers’ song ‘hanging on the old barbed wire’. For Lewis, as for many others, the political future was to be found on the right with some form of authortarianism.

June 2008

Best laid plans

In the 1960s, ‘local government leader and criminal’ T Dan Smith attempted to transform Newcastle into ‘the Brasilia, or the Milan, of the North’. As Stamp says, today’s Newcastle is ‘more like the Croydon of the North’.


Joy without mawkishness

Winning a short story competition in the student weekly newspaper, Varsity, in 1951 steered him from medicine towards writing – and he wanted to be the sort of writer ‘devoted to predicting and, if possible, provoking change’.

May 2008

A portrait of the artist as a tired pirate

The photos in this exhibition provide degrees of insight about how the false – the pose – can help to reveal the truth. And the fact that they sometimes do so with a touch of glamour is an added bonus.

Good work, 007!

In recent films Bond’s patronising treatment of women has been changed, whilst Dame Judi Dench has appeared as a formidable female ‘M’, but these changes have probably been done with an eye more on the cultural critics than on the box office – few filmgoers, one imagines, view Bond films as consciousness-raising exercises.

March 2008

Engineers, boffins, geeks and rude mechanicals

This book is written by two authors who are leading figures in their fields. Sir Terence Conran, combining practicality with attractiveness, gave the fruits of his imagination and acumen to the Britain that was just emerging from the rigours of post-war austerity, and has gone on to being a leading designer, retailer and restaurateur.

BooksVisual Arts
December 2007

The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?

The heat of the sex war has contributed books that have added worthwhile fuel to its fiery controversies. It’s also helped to warm-up a few potboilers. What does this offering on the subject give us – solid food or warmed over scraps from other people’s tables?

September 2007

The Singer

Most rock-based cultural commentary is produced by writers who seem never to have experienced the hedonistic pleasure of dressing up, hitting the dance floor or going with the flow. With a possible rise in popularity of noir crime writing, however, the rock novel may provide some backstage passes that give access to all areas.

September 2006

Seventies: The Sights, Sounds and Ideas of a Brilliant Decade

This book is not the beginning of the end of sterotyping the Seventies, and the decade will, no doubt, still be the subject of over-simplification. But it does provide a useful introduction to its cultural wares, and makes us realise that the Seventies deserve serious re-evaluation.


White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties

Few commentators have been prepared to dissent from the prevailing view of the Sixties as a period of exciting change. But Sandbrook revises our opinions about what many still venerate as a cherished myth. Outside the metropolis - or, rather, Chelsea, Mayfair and the West End - how far did Britain swing?

June 2006

John Osborne - A Patriot for Us

Heilpern throws new light on his subject – the dream of every biographer – by means of his access to the playwright’s private notebooks, over 20 of which had survived sporadically from the 1950s until Osborne’s death in 1994.


Self Made Man - My Year Disguised as a Man

On goes the false stubble and out steps our intrepid heroine - as Ned - into the male world. But she seems unwilling to make a firm decision about whether gender has grey areas or is either starkly pink or blue. The suspicion comes to mind that she has to maintain a certain bipolarity between the sexes in order to give the book its selling-point.

April 2006

Plato’s Children: The State We Are In

If this seems tough, we should be encouraged by the fact that, unlike some other commentators, O’Hear doesn’t feel that escaping from the cave that is modern Britain is an instrinsically hopeless task.

February 2006

Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles

Where Sandbrook really makes his mark is in drily debunking some standard myths that have been propagated about the sixties. The concept of ‘suburban blues’ - a sense of alienation supposedly suffered by suburb dwellers - was a snobbish myth: most dwellers in the ‘burbs’ were happy with their lot

October 2005

The Strange Death of Tory England

Today’s Tory party seems a colourless, rudderless crew, a sorry affair of opportunist modernisers (folks who live in Notting Hill but whose spiritual home is Islington), traditionalists, fearful fence-sitters and don’t knows.

February 2003

The Nick of Time - (Man Booker Prize 2003)

Chick and lad novels have made us used to London appearing as the backdrop to the feisty feminist Getting Her Man or the carefree bloke Settling Down. In his latest book, The Nick of Time, Francis King gives us another view of the city.


Turn Again Home - (Man Booker Prize 2003)

In this novel, Ms Birch tells the story of a Northern working class family, a tale that stretches from just after the First World War onwards over three generations. In choosing this theme, she immediately sets herself a problem and raises a question in her reader’s mind.


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