It’s been a year

I have kept this weekly blog now for just over a year and I thought I would take the opportunity to look back at the entries and see if it can give me some ideas as to which books to talk about next. To my surprise the top five liked entries as I write this are all related to Scotland

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William McGonagall wrote excruciatingly bad verse about Scotland and the people there and was a proud resident of Dundee, eventually Dundee has become proud of him as well. Iain Banks was another Scotsman through and through and the book I reviewed was his homage to the land of his birth. Shaun Bythell’s book was one of the first things I wrote about so his diary of keeping a Scottish bookshop going has had a whole year to accumulate its tally of likes whilst I only wrote about Elizabeth Cummings book about Scottish artist Sir Robin Philipson a couple of weeks ago and it has already made it to number five. You may have noticed I skipped Robert Service, he was also Scottish although found fame as a poet in Canada however I left him to last as he highlights another trend in popular posts here and that is poetry.

This is even more obvious when I look at the next five entries…

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The Frogs is a classical Greek play in verse, Persian Poets is clearly about poetry and Under Milk Wood is a poetic masterpiece by Dylan Thomas, this makes half of the top ten liked entries are about poetry although there is nowhere near that percentage represented in the total number of essays I have produced so far.

The remaining two are interesting. The Royal Tour is a beautifully illustrated diary of a cruise around a lot of the then British Empire and Uncle Jim is a bit of a sleeper as it deals with the early output of fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett but without mentioning him in the title so you had to read the article to find out.

There are other statistics available that don’t display on the front page so aren’t visible to readers of the blog and from those I can see that Deep in the Forest – Estonian Folk Tales is looked at more often than any other entry and it is viewed from all over the world, as opposed to my other Estonian review of the Apothacary Melchior books which also gets quite a few readers but 90% of these are in Estonia or Finland. Only one entry has not been read by anybody according to the statistics available and that is The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Sorry Will although I have all your plays several times I don’t think you are going to be featured here again.

So what does all this tell me? Well poetry is definitely popular here and that’s good as I also like poetry and have quite a few more poets to write about, one of which will probably be in the next four weeks. Bearing in mind the Scottish bias as well I suppose I had better get the volume of Robert Burns I have from 1946 out and reread that soon.

The Frogs by Aristophanes was a surprise hit, to me at least, so we will see how next weeks entry, which is also classical Greek, goes down. I have a lot of ‘the Classics’ and am also planning a review of a book dealing with the subject of what makes a classic in the next month or so. Art and Design has also been popular and again this is something I have a lot about in my library so expect more of those subjects in the coming year.

But is there anything you would like me to write about? Not specific books, as according to the rules I set myself I have to own the title to write about it so you would have to be really lucky to hit one of the 6,500 titles on my shelves, but general subjects. I haven’t done much on Travel and Exploration but what has been done has been generally well received, should I do more? Any suggestions would be good either as a comment below or as a message through the site.

Robin Philipson – Elizabeth Cumming

This is the first of my ‘what I got for Christmas’ posts and this book was a wonderful surprise from some very good friends. I first saw Robin’s art at their home and loved it straight away so that I have bought several pieces over the ensuing years, some of which I am using to illustrate this essay rather than images from the book itself.

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Sir Robin Philipson RA RSA FRSE RSW to give him his proper title was a major name in Scottish art through the second half of the 20th century; not only as a creator of beautiful works but as a teacher for many decades at the Edinburgh College of Art. There have been a couple of biographies before, along with pamphlets to accompany exhibitions, but this is easily the most comprehensive biography so far. Cummings has spoken to lots of members of Robin’s family including his widow Diana and also his nephew who gave me this lovely book.

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As this was a Christmas present it is appropriate to start with a couple of Robin’s Christmas cards on my walls. What can be immediately seen is his bold use of colour, as Dr Cumming says in her book.

…colour was always a principle tool in Robin’s art, and it evolved throughout his career; he was one of Scotland’s major colourists. It was this as much as technical experiment which drove all his work; whether easel painting, printmaking or his involvement in textile enterprises…

Robin produced a Christmas card every year from the late 1960’s, not only painting the original but also printing the cards, en masse they look fantastic, I only have three but hope to add others to my collection as time goes on.

The book’s cover picture is entitled Brenda Spring Portrait, she was his first wife, they married in 1949 a couple of years after he took up his first role as lecturer at the Edinburgh College, and he painted her several times. The Summer and Winter portraits are also included in the book along with a very interesting study for the Spring portrait. One of the joys of this volume is the inclusion of studies for works along with pictures of Robin in his studio which gives an opportunity to see how he went about some of his pieces.

The book is split into several sections, part one looks at his early life and how he came to be in Scotland in the first place; he was born in Cumbria in 1916. Part two is the longest and takes us from starting teaching and his marriage to Brenda, to his discovery of the joys of print making and the introduction of three of his main themes, cock fighting, kings and cathedrals.

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My largest piece and one that hangs above my desk can be seen above, limited to 50 and signed by Robin it is also my favourite in it’s bold use of colour and dynamism of the subject.

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The book is copiously illustrated and includes a significant number of works that are held in private collections so not generally seen, it also gives me a chance to roughly date the art I have collected as style and themes develop through the book as we move through Robin’s career.

He designed the posters and programme covers for the Edinburgh Festival in both 1958 and 1959, the book includes examples of both programmes and in my collection I have an original (and highly fragile) poster for 1959 which is a really good example of his style at the end of the 1950’s.

Part three takes us from the early death of Brenda from a brain tumour in 1960 which led to a period where very few works were produced and those that did appear are dark and angry in tone to meeting Thora Clyne who was to become his second wife in 1962. This seems to have led to a blossoming of Robin’s art and he also took up the appointment of head of Drawing and Painting in the early 1960’s so became very busy.

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I have a couple of versions of Peasant, which dates from 1958 and are different sizes, only one of which is signed, I really like this happy character and he also hangs above my desk where I am writing this.

He did manage to fit in a trip to Colorado in the summer of 1963 as a visiting Professor of Art in Colorado. During this time he became influenced by native paintings and also Mexican churches, there is a truly beautiful painting of a yellow altar towards the end of that section.

The fourth section of the books sees another theme emerging in Robin’s art as we complete the 1960’s and that is depictions of crucifixion. This is a logical extension of his works depicting church interiors , specifically rose windows, and the altars he had started painting in the early part of the decade. Again Cummings takes us through the change in his art against the changes happening in his life and explains how they fit together.

The fifth part covers most of the 1970’s, from his surgery for colonic cancer whilst on a trip to France to study tapestries through his divorce from Thora and marriage to Diana. This was a period not only of great creativity and more new themes to his work such as ‘human kind’ which depict inter-racial couples in various settings to his numerous paintings of ‘women of pleasure’; but also of much greater recognition in the world outside of the Scottish Art scene. He became president of the Royal Scottish Academy, a post he held for a decade and from that a fellow of the Royal Academy in London. In 1976 he was knighted for services to art and all whilst heading up the Drawing and Painting department at the Edinburgh College of Art. He would continue to have bouts of illness throughout this period but his workload and artistic output hardly seemed to let up.

The final section deals with the last fourteen years of Robin’s life up to his death in 1992, this was still a highly busy and productive time with yet another theme to his art appearing, the wonderfully delicate poppy still life paintings.

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I have a couple of these prints, both signed, as my representations of this period and there are three originals reproduced in the book with various backgrounds which demonstrate his total mastery of colour. Sadly the cancer first detected in the 1970’s was to claim him just when it looked like he was reaching another peak in his creativity. I have more pictures by him than I have used in this short review and am always looking for more to add to my small collection especially now I have seen some of the works in this beautifully illustrated book.

All in all this is a major retrospective of the life and work of a man who became very important figure in Scottish art for several decades and hopefully it will help raise his profile again twenty five years after his death. The main body of the book (excluding chronology, notes and index) is 138 pages long, sixty nine of which are made up of full page (and indeed double page) illustrations and a large proportion of the text pages also have a picture or two on them, this really is a magnificent review of Robin’s works and for the most part is extremely readable. My one criticism is the impression you get that Cummings wants to prove she has done her research which leads to whole paragraphs which seem to consist of nothing but lists of names and dates which you hit like boulders in the stream of an otherwise flowing tale. Having said that I very much enjoyed the book and will finish this overview with my only Philipson original, a small pastel still life.

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Raw Spirit – Iain Banks

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‘Hiya Banksie! Written any good books lately?’
‘Not if you believe certain critics, but I’m going to be writing one about whisky.’
‘A book about whisky?’
‘Yeah, malt whisky.’
‘You’re kidding!’
‘Not as such.’
‘This mean you’re going to have to do the “R” word?’
‘The “R” word? Oh! Research? Yeah basically. Goin to have to drive round Scotland, take trains, ferries, planes and such, go to distilleries, taste whiskies, that sort of -‘
‘And they’re going to pay you for this?’
‘They’ve already started.’
‘Right I see. D’you need a hand?’

So begins Iain Banks’ Raw Spirit: In Search of a Perfect Dram and those people familiar only with Iain M Banks the gritty science fiction writer or his even grittier ‘normal’ fiction written as Iain Banks are in for a surprise as this is a genuinely funny book interspersed with rants about the Second Iraq war which had just started as he set of in search of the “R” word. As a fan of both Banks and whisky, purchasing this book when it came out did not take much consideration and I recently pulled it back off the shelves as later this year I’m doing my own trip round some distilleries and like Banks I’m starting with Islay.

Rereading the book was a surprise, my 14 year old memory of what was covered is clearly faulty, yes there is whisky aplenty and distilleries also get pretty good coverage but a large part of the book is really about Banks’ love affair with Scotland and its “Great Wee Roads” or GWRs as they are referred to throughout. There is a lot more said about getting to the distilleries (both the roads and vehicle chosen to make the journey) than there is covering them or their production. There is also a considerable amount of reminiscences of past holidays, fun times in out of the way properties and time spent with old friends. The book is really as close as we ever got to an autobiography by Banks who sadly died in 2013 from cancer aged just 59. If you want a book about whisky then you are really better off with Michael Jackson’s definitive tome, but if you want a book about the joy of travelling around Scotland looking for whiskies and the friendships and fellowships that it can engender then this is for you.

Let’s take a random chapter and breakdown the coverage of each subject, “12: Porridge and Scottishness, Football and Fireworks” has a total of 20 and a bit pages:

  • Porridge, why he doesn’t like it and other Scottish institutions such as kilts – 2½ pages
  • Six distilleries visited and their whiskies – 7 pages
  • Memories of Monty Python (he was an extra in one of the films)  – 1 page
  • Memories of blowing things up (fireworks with mates) – 4½ pages
  • Travelling – 1 page
  • The joys and tribulations of following Morton Football Club – 4 and a bit pages

That seems to be a pretty average hit rate for the theoretical subject of the book, although the travelling to whisky ration is normally higher than that, at least after you get past chapter one where Banks does stick more closely to his brief. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, I very much did so, it’s an easy read and you want to follow Banks around the country as he enjoys the scenery, samples whisky and chats with old mates. You feel by the end that the Raw Spirit of the title is more the spirit of Scottishness rather than Scotch and it’s good fun.

As a final note my copy is the first edition hardback printed by Century in 2003, that also appears to be the only Century edition as by 2004 it was a paperback with a completely different cover published by Arrow. Both of these are imprints of Penguin Random House.