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.


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.


Toulouse-Lautrec & The Englishmen at the Moulin Rouge

In 1892, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted “The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge”, now in The Metropolitan Museum, New York. The Englishman in question is William Tom Warrener (1861-1934) who had become friends with Lautrec in the early 1890s.

htl - enlishman moulin rouge 1892 met

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge [1892, Metropolitan Museum, New York]

Patrick O’Connor (1) suggests there is a sly irony to the scene: the Englishman is mischievously characterised with a certain embarrassed reserve – note his reddening ear – as he enters into conversation with the two ladies of the Moulin Rouge (2). That the working title for the piece was “Flirt” (3) also suggests the perhaps risqué nature of their talk. Nevertheless, the painting would serve as the basis for a poster of the same name (Musee Toulouse-Lautrec), the man now reduced to a near shadow (to represent Englishmen in general, rather than portraying Warrener in particular). However, Warrener does then turn up again in another of Lautrec’s 1892 paintings: “Jane Avril Dancing”, now in the Musee d’Orsay (4) – he is at the back of the scene with an unidentified woman.

So, who was William Tom Warrener? And what was he doing in Paris in the early 1890s?

Well there is sadly rather little information on him (5), especially at this time in his life. Julia Frey writes that he was “a painter from an influential English family, who had moved to Paris in the mid-1880s to study at the Academie Julian. He moved to Montmartre in the 1890s where he met Henri [Toulouse-Lautrec]” (p.314). And, in fact, he showed work at the Paris Salon, not returning to his hometown of Lincoln until 1906 where, whilst taking up his role in the family (coal) business, he also set up the Lincolnshire Drawing Society and would, later, become President of the Lincolnshire Artists’ Society. A number of his paintings and sketchbooks (6) are now held by the Usher Gallery in Lincoln, examples of which can be seen on the website revealing that whilst in France he worked at the artists’ colony Grez-sur-Loing and explored the bright sunlit colours of Impressionism.

However, there are also two paintings that come from his adventures in Montmartre with Toulouse-Lautrec: “Quadrille I” and “Quadrille II” (both dated circa 1890 and both in the Usher Gallery collection).

Warrener, William Tom, 1861-1934; Quadrille IWarrener, William Tom, 1861-1934; Quadrille II
Later in her biography of Toulouse-Lautrec, Julia Frey notes: “In the late 1880s and early 1890s, he befriended a number of younger English artists in Paris” (p.384). These included William Rothenstein who, in 1931, would write up his recollections of the time he spent in Paris as a young art student (7), recognising both the thrill and the folly of bohemian life as he moved from the Left Bank “all very well for poets and scholars” to Montmartre “essentially the artists’ quarter” – he was just seventeen years old.

“Puvis de Chavannes had a studio on the Place Pigalle, while Alfred Stevens lived close by, and in the Rue Victor Masse lived Degas. At Montmartre also were the Nouvelles Athenes and the Pere Lathuille, [cafes] where Manet, Zola, Pissarro and Monet, indeed, all the original Impressionists used to meet. The temptation, therefore, to cross the river and live on the heights was too strong to resist” (p.56).

It was at a restaurant in Place Pigalle that he used to meet with friends for lunch:

“The Rat Mort by night had a somewhat doubtful reputation, but during the day was frequented by painters and poets. As a matter of fact it was a notorious centre of lesbianism… [and] it was here that I first met Toulouse-Lautrec…” (p.59).

Then there was, of course, the Moulin Rouge:

“[A]n open air café-concert where one could watch people sitting and walking under coloured lamps and under the stars. Inside the great dancing hall, its walls covered with mirrors… was the dancing of the cancan. …In most places dancers performed on a stage; at the Moulin they mixed with the crowd… suddenly the band would strike up, and they formed a set in the middle of the floor, while a crowd gathered closely around them. It was a strange dance; a sort of quadrille, with [the men] twisting their legs into uncouth shapes… their partners [with] one leg on the ground, the other raised almost vertically, previous to the sudden descent – le grand ecart” (p.62).

Another student artist in their group was Charles Conder who, one evening – “having drunk more than was good for us” – suggested they paint the Moulin Rouge dancers “there and then”. Whilst I haven’t traced the “wild results” of Rothenstein’s painting-spree, the Manchester Art Gallery has Conder’s “The Moulin Rouge” (1890) which may well have been painted that drunken night.

Conder, Charles, 1868-1909; The Moulin Rouge

Indeed the script at the bottom-right of the painting reads:


“Can anyone wonder that [we] were fascinated by this strange and vivid life?” (p.62), asks Rothenstein – indeed, it must have been an extraordinary time for these young artists there with the ‘in-crowd’ of bohemian Montmartre.


Please note: this is just the beginning of a longer research piece on British artists in late 19th-century France. Any further resources or references you may have would be greatly appreciated. Please contact via Twitter @TheCommonViewer.


(1) Patrick O’Connor: “Toulouse-Lautrec: The Nightlife of Paris” (Phaidon, 1991, p.32)
(2) The women have been identified as Rayon d’Or and La Sauterelle:; although biographer Julia Frey suggests they might be La Goulue and La Mome Fromage
(3) Julia Frey: Toulouse-Lautrec – A Life (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994, p.314)
(5) See Wikipedia for a brief biographical overview:
(6) The sketchbooks in the The Usher Archives are undated and not digitised. I must say a huge thank you to the Collections Development Officer at Lincoln County Council, Dawn Heywood for the kind help and information she has found.
(7) William Rothenstein: “Men and memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein 1871-1900” (Faber & Faber, 1931)                                                                                                                 (8) Many thanks to Manchester Art Gallery for this information.                                               (9) There’s an extraordinary – indeed surrealist – picture by Charles Conder at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge called “A Dream in Absinthe” from 1890 (see



Steve Whittle: A Review of Recent Works

[Published in the Southend Echo, Friday 14th July 2017, p.35]


The Spirit of Place

Local artist Steve Whittle, whose work is on show at The Beecroft Gallery until July 22nd, trained at the Central School of Art in the heady days of 1960s London. For much of his career he then balanced being a professional artist with secondary-school teaching, but for the last eight years his focus has been exclusively on making art.

The current exhibition is of recent work primarily, yet it also includes a few early paintings, including minimalist abstracts in which colour squares, precisely angled, shimmer and vibrate on the canvas. Colour is very close to the heart of Whittle’s work, and when I talk to him, he mentions Bridget Riley, Francis Bacon and David Hockney – all exceptional modern colourists.

Whittle’s practice is to regard a single subject closely through a series of different media sometimes over a number of years, and one of the new projects that particularly caught my eye focuses The Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall which has stood in Bradwell-on-Sea since the 7th century when St Cedd founded a religious community there.

Asking what had drawn him to this ancient Chapel, Whittle says it’s almost impossible to put into words, he’d felt a primal and immediate connection on his first visit and had to return again and again. That powerful pull has resulted in a number of works, including charcoals, pastels, paintings and collages, all of which portray the extraordinary sense, or spirit, of place – remote, lonely; glorious and powerful – the austere silhouette of the Chapel monumental against the sea and sky.

For Whittle, painting is a process of continually building up and scraping back to reveal colours and layers – in his paintings of St Peter’s the sky is a deep, rich clear jewel-like blue; the chapel has the tactile quality of ancient stone; whilst the grass, despite a perfectly edged lawn, rasps with spear-like texture – as if in recognition that the nature of this remote landscape cannot be truly tamed.

The collages are made of torn pages from high-quality fashion magazines; the detail and texture of these reflect the stonework of the Chapel and on the pieces that form the sky, we can see words, portions of paragraphs and part titles of articles – one, by chance, reads ‘the medieval modernist’. I’m fascinated by these. Fashion, of course, is always now, always modern; magazines are such ephemeral products – read today, thrown away tomorrow. Yet here they serve a history that stretches back almost fourteen centuries. I stand looking, careering back and forth in time.

To the common viewer, these pictures seem a million miles from his early work yet, with gracious subtlety, Steve Whittle suggested I should perhaps look again, for artists build up their vocabulary over the years, a means to visual expression. The serialisation of works built around a single subject, the regular pattern of the torn squares in the collages – both are very much the poetry of that systemic minimalism that had gripped him as a student. Then I saw the red line. I had completely missed it: a precisely drawn red line shimmering and vibrating on the horizon behind the Chapel.

“Recent Works” is a fascinating exhibition that calls for the viewer’s deep engagement; swept up in the vibrancy of colour we are cast into the dramatic perspective of this ancient chapel on the edge of the world made splendid in Steve Whittle’s unique artistic sensibility.

ML Banting

The Beecroft Art History Group meets 10.30am every last Saturday of the month.



Art History Mornings at The Beecroft: The Art of the First World War

Saturday 27th May, 10.30

Throughout World War I there was a debate amongst both artists and viewers on how art might represent and reflect the horrors of the first machine-age war. Today we’ll look at a variety of paintings that range from documentary ‘realism’ to expressionist ‘modernism’ exploring the debates, the reactions and indeed our own ways of seeing 100 years on.

Philip Wilson Steer, 'Girls Running, Walberswick Pier' 1888–94Philip Wilson Steer, 'Girls Running, Walberswick Pier' 1888–94Walter Sickert: Soldiers of King Albert at the Ready (1914; Sheffield Museums; c/o

These monthly Saturday morning art history talks are educational yet informal and open to anyone with an interest in art. Each session combines an illustrated talk and discussion, drawing on collections and current exhibitions around the UK.

Meetings will be held on Saturday mornings, 10.30am to 12.30pm in the Lecture Theatre on the ground floor of the Beecroft Gallery.

 Each talk costs £10 and includes tea/coffee (biscuits!) and resource materials for independent research.

For further information and to enrol, please contact Mark Banting: