The Words and Pictures Book Club (August 2022): “The Empress of Art” by Susan Jaques

The next Words and Pictures Book Club will meet on 19th August, 2pm at the Pebbles cafe [Havens community hub, Hamlet Court Road] to discuss:

“The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the transformation of Russia” by Susan Jaques.

published by Pegasus Books, 2016

An art-oriented biography of the mighty Catherine the Great, who rose from seemingly innocuous beginnings to become one of the most powerful people in the world. A German princess who married a decadent and lazy Russian prince, Catherine mobilized support amongst the Russian nobles, playing off of her husband’s increasing corruption and abuse of power. She then staged a coup that ended with him being strangled with his own scarf in the halls of the palace, and she being crowned the Empress of Russia. Intelligent and determined, Catherine modelled herself off of her grandfather in-law, Peter the Great, and sought to further modernize and westernize Russia. She believed that the best way to do this was through a ravenous acquisition of art, which Catherine often used as a form of diplomacy with other powers throughout Europe. She was a self-proclaimed “glutton for art” and she would be responsible for the creation of the Hermitage, one of the largest museums in the world, second only to the Louvre. Catherine also spearheaded the further expansion of St. Petersburg, and the magnificent architectural wonder the city became is largely her doing. There are few women in history more fascinating than Catherine the Great, and for the first time, Susan Jaques brings her to life through the prism of art.

Pegasus Books

The Words & Pictures Book Group meets monthly over coffee and cake to discuss books – either fiction or non-fiction – that draw on art, painting and the lives of artists. It is free, relaxed and all are welcome!

Please follow here on WordPress or @TheCommonViewer on Twitter for updates.


Art, Books and Culture Group meeting Saturday 30th July – Surrealist Magic (1): The Art of Eileen Agar

Eileen Agar: The Muse of Construction [1939; private]

Eileen Agar (1889-1991) was, to my mind, one of the most exceptional artists of the 20th century, especially during the 1930s when her paintings presented the generative power of life and imagination against Europe’s descent into horror, cruelty and war:

“Apart from rampant and hysterical militarism, there is no male element left in Europe, for the intellectual and rational conception of life has given way to a more miraculous creative interpretation, and artistic and imaginative life is under the sway of womb-magic.”

Today we shall explore Eileen Agar’s womb-magic with particular reference to her extraordinary painting:

The Autobiography of an Embryo 1933-4 Eileen Agar 1899-1991 Purchased 1987

The Autobiography of an Embryo [1934; Tate] which offers a wholly new philosophical way of seeing and understanding the world around us – and might indeed serve as the artist’s manifesto.


As ever, all are welcome to join the discussion – an open forum for ideas.

Tickets cost £10 on the door. We will start at 11.15am and finish around 12.30pm with coffee & biscuits. The meeting will be held on Saturday 30th July in the Lecture Theatre at The Beecroft Art Gallery.


Note: Eileen Agar’s painting “Caliban” [1945, Reiff Collection] will be on show at the Beecroft this summer:—British-Artists-of-the-20th-Century

Note 2: In August we continue the Summer of Surrealism with an overview of British Surrealism, then in September our focus is on the art of Leonora Carrington who, in 1936, wrote: “When one is overcome by demoralization and defeat, depressed or on the verge of suicide, that is the time to open one’s Surrealist Survival Kit and enjoy a breath of magical fresh air. To lay out its marvellous contents carefully before you and let them play …”

Leonora Carrington: The Giantess
[1947; MoMA]


The Words and Pictures Book Club: “Still Life” by Sarah Winman


Well, should Sarah Winman ever read this, then our Words & Pictures book club meeting today gloried in the brilliance of “Still Life” from the characters to the story-telling, the history of Florence to the interweaving of art and art’s histories.

paperback, published by HarperCollins

1944, in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa, as bombs fall around them, two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening. Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the wreckage and relive memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view. Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty plants a seed in Ulysses’ mind that will shape the trajectory of his life – and of those who love him – for the next four decades. Moving from the Tuscan Hills and piazzas of Florence, to the smog of London’s East End, Still Life is a sweeping, joyful novel about beauty, love, family and fate.


For anyone who hasn’t yet read it, “Still Life” is full of humanity: real, tangible, positive, hope-giving humanity. It’s a novel that, personally, I have promised myself I shall never be without: a touchstone as it were for when the world seems to be on fire and there is nothing one can do about it.

It is also jam-packed with ideas and, I do recommend the article for Vanity Fair [click here] in which the author reviews the influences & inspirations behind the writing of the novel and there is also a lovely interview piece in The Florentine [here].

One fabulous ‘introduction’ offered by the novel to the reader is to the still relatively unknown nun-artist Sister Plautilla Nelli (1524–1588) about whom Caroline Moorhead wrote in The Guardian [article] with regard to the restoration of Nelli’s extraordinary painting of The Last Supper; including an image:

Detail from the Last Supper by Plautilla Nelli, showing apostles, possibly Thomas and Peter. Photograph: Rabatti & Domingie.

The colours are enough to take one’s breath away, let alone anything else and, c/o the Museum of Santa Maria Novella magazine, there is a video revealing Nelli’s painting in all its glory [here].

Responding to the question: What do you hope readers will discover in Still Life? as part of an interview with Booktopia [here], Sarah Winman suggested:

“Laughter. Joy. A moment of lightness and belief in the world again after the ravages of the last year [the Covid pandemic] and the constant grip of right-wing politics. I like to think that my book is a re-charging of the batteries!”

and, wow, did she achieve that – and much more – for the Words & Pictures book club readers.


The Words & Pictures Book Group meets monthly over coffee and cake to discuss books – either fiction or non-fiction – that draw on art, painting and the lives of artists. Please follow here on WordPress or @TheCommonViewer on Twitter for updates.