Rebecca Swirsky: Writer

London-based short story writer and critic

Venetian glassware

A family affair

NO ARTIFICIAL light is used at the first British show by Laura de Santillana and Alessandro Diaz de Santillana, Venice-based siblings from the great Venini glassware dynasty. Instead, spring sunshine scribes and inhabits the sculptural glass shapes they have installed in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s 18th-century chapel. Whereas Paulo Venini, the glassware maestro, was lauded for designs that tether form to function, his grandchildren translate the medium’s possibilities into objects ambiguously located between mirror and painting, sculpture and book.

Glass—like the de Santillanas’ family—has a rich history. In 2,000BC Egyptian glass beads were considered as valuable as gold and semi-precious gems, and were traded widely. The Venetians were making glass by the eighth century, but the flourishing of the craft was linked to the arrival of Byzantine glassworkers fleeing Constantinople’s occupation by the Crusaders in 1204 and by the Ottomans in 1453. The city-state’s glass trade grew accordingly, aided by its strategic trading position between East and West.

In 1291 the industry was ordered to move to the island of Murano to safeguard Venice’s mainly wooden buildings against fires caused by glass furnaces. This isolation also made the glassmakers easier to control. They were both supervised and respected, and a law was passed in 1295 forbidding them to migrate, lest they take their knowledge with them. To encourage successive generations to stay in the trade, the Venetian government granted artisans higher social status and permission for their daughters to marry into premier Venetian families. The manoeuvre worked. Bequeathed from father to son, glass recipes or partite became wreathed in secrecy, fostering an insularity that persisted even beyond the Republic’s collapse in 1808.

Into this smouldering atmosphere of heritage and tradition came Paulo Venini (1895-1959), a fresh-faced Milanese law graduate, in 1921, bringing more modernist visions with him. Formidable in promotion, taste and, later, his own designs, Venini employed Carlo Scarpa, a renowned architect, and Fulvio Bianconi, an illustrator, as artistic designers. His company exhibited at the Venice Biennale and the Milan Triennale, and soon many others were copying its avant-garde style.

Fast-forward several years and the de Santillanas, who developed their skills working at Venini, have developed separate visual languages as artists, although they share a dynamic, fluid approach. Nudging the medium into the fine art world, they have created pieces in America, Italy, Venice, France and the Czech Republic, forging international artistic–rather than artisanal—reputations.

Mr Diaz de Santillana’s series of painterly mirrored works of blown glass and silver patina usher the atmosphere of Venice’s laguna into the chapel. They appear as undulating slabs of murky water, their ruffled surfaces like liquid indented by breeze—the Corinthians quote comes to mind, “For now we see through a glass, darkly”. His site-specific work “HS-YSP” (2011-15) arranges 13 pieces of glass on a wall, in a large, loose curve reminiscent of an ammonite.

Ms de Santillana says the pair often start from the same idea, before diverging into different processes. Indeed, if Mr Diaz de Santillana reflects the light in his work, Ms de Santillana draws it inward. Among the highlights of her exhibition is “Blue Octavo” (2014), referencing Kafka’s octavo-size notebooks, which the writer kept from 1917 to 1919. Resonating with the work of Edmund de Waal, a ceramicist, in its careful simplicity, “Blue Octavo” is composed of a white vitrine or “bookshelf” holding eight rectangular “glass books”, each made from blown compressed glass, and each containing a sealed interior space. Before the mouths of the books were sealed, white opal powder was poured in, settling into formations inside and making the chromatic properties of each unique. In direct reference to Kafka’s notebooks, seven of Laura’s books are an inky blue. Ms de Santillana explains that the “dark blue looks black, like clouds turning black in the twilight”.

The chapel’s contemplative, light-saturated space is a fitting environment for the works of these 21st-century glass maestros. Skilled in the sculptural syntax of glass and touched by Venini stardust, Ms de Santillana and her brother share new visions for this age-old material.

This article was first published in The Economist’s online blog Prospero

‘Something Else Entirely’

Dinosaurs on Other Planets

by Danielle McLaughlin
(208pp, John Murray, hardback £14.99, ISBN 978 1 473 613706)


Good writers rely on style. Great writers rely on empathy, revealing something essential about who and why we are. Mining the psycho-geography of small towns and rural Ireland from Portlaoise to Balleyphehane, Danielle McLaughlin’s debut collection edges her towards the latter category. In the opening story, The Art of Foot Binding, a character asks, ‘Did you ever think our lives would turn out like this?’ It’s a question that sets the tone for eleven works in which cruelty and care are situated a hair’s breadth apart.

McLaughlin belongs to a new breed of Irish writer and, more specifically, female Irish writer whose outspokeness has been hazarded by author Kevin Barry as ‘a proper radicalism’. Writers who, swerving from traditional touchstones of exile, artistic restraint, poverty, famine and church (subjects labelled scathingly by Anne Enright as ‘Grand Ireland’), are detailing contemporary Ireland in all its recent diffuse angst and economic instability.

Owing its spirit as much to Flannery O’Connor and Alice Munro as William Trevor and Anne Enright, McLaughlin’s writing possesses an impressive degree of maturity for someone who had a mid-life career change. She hadn’t published a word before her 40s. Yet the author’s previous grounding as a lawyer, with its proximity to courtroom theatre and linguistic rigour, explains her precision in detailing the tensions in relationships. Dented by life, characters rub uneasily against each other, missing some vital social cues and wilfully ignoring others, ultimately defined as much by the negative spaces between them as by jolting connection. In Not Oleanders, Etta, a twenty-something would-be suitor for ‘battle-scarred, fraying around the edges’ Lily, is too gauche to understand that ‘Life, after all, was mostly the art of salvage.’ Louise, the first person narrator in The Smell of Dead Flowers, realises only many years later the true meaning of her aunt’s expression as she gazed from the bedroom window, an expression understood by the story’s end as ‘something else entirely’.

Death shapes the collection, specifically the death of animals; a trail of ducks, crows, fish, puppies, mink, seals, crabs, bluebottles, dragonflies, moths, sheep and chickens pile up by its end. McLaughlin says she ‘had an obsession with dead things; insects, birds and animals’ as a young child. Her characters fare little better, yet despite a slew of affairs, mental breakdowns, spontaneous prostitution, alcoholism, dying mothers and learning disabilities, they avoid reading as overwrought. And among the many bruising, quotidian sorrows, beauty emerges with rawness. An argumentative teenager is ‘dismayed, confused, scorched by the life sap bubbling up through her’. Park ducks, mysteriously lifeless, are described as ‘lying on a muddy bank, their jewelled heads pressing beak-shaped indents into the silt.’

Rarely used, metaphor, when utilised, homes in on the body with queasy precision; girls from a rough estate are ‘propped against alley walls, taking boys like bullets’, skin has the ‘waxy, pinched look of a museum doll’, breasts are likened to ‘two small oranges’, nipples as ‘little hard pips’, while pregnant Aileen in Silhouette, reading an article about German ‘baby hatches’, imagines babies plopping into warm darkness,’the occasional soft cracking of skulls like eggs’.

Occasionally an imprecision with language surfaces, while some endings err on the stagey side, yet these are minor shadings. Mostly, the author’s crisp yet comma-rich prose style balances a novel’s leisurely breath with the short story’s tart density. Ali Smith has suggested the latter form’s tension results from the reader’s awareness in its imminent end – an end closer in sight than the novel. ‘With the short story,’ she has written, ‘you are up against mortality’. Death is always around the corner. Within this context, the largesse of animal corpses in Dinosaurs on Other Planets sits comfortably.

This review was first published in the TLS in May 2016


The Fine Art of Play

The fine art of playing – Artists on Play

The UN has enshrined the importance of play for children in its Declaration of Human Rights, and science shows how vital it is to their physical and mental development. But as cash for playgrounds in the UK is cut, privately commissioned projects, often created by artists, are coming to the fore. But can the worlds of art and play come together with integrity?


Words Rebecca Swirsky

Amid the glitz of London’s Frieze Art Fair, a four-year-old studies an oversized dice scored with black holes, from which children are intermittently appearing. ‘Normally you’d roll a dice,’ he tells his mother. ‘How am I going to roll this?’ Nearby, a toddler is tugging on a toy octopus’s tentacles, the creature’s hazel glass eyes uncannily human, while two six-year-olds are rocking a giant mushroom with realistic funghi veins and patination. I’m in Gartenkinder (2014), a children’s playspace designed by Carsten Höller, the Belgian conceptual artist whose major show – Decision – has just opened at the Hayward in London. Gartenkinder’s title is translated literally as ‘garden for children’ and this installation for the Gagosian Gallery’s stand attracts a steady stream of well-dressed children and accompanying adults, some of whom are clearly hoping to play themselves.

Fast forward five months and I’m lying down, staring through a square of Plexiglass built into an Escheresque soft-play space named The Idol (2015), in London’s economically deprived borough of Barking. Straddling contemporary art sculpture and functional space, The Idol is the jewel in the crown of the £14m Abbey Sport Centre and is predicted, in its first 10 years, to engage more than 700,000 local young children and families.

The Idol, an art sculpture and playspace by artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd in Barking, 2015. Photo Credit: Emil Charlaff
The Idol, an art sculpture and playspace by artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd in Barking, 2015. Photo Credit: Emil Charlaff

Designed by Turner Prize-nominated artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, acclaimed for her anarchic, playful group performances, the soft-play space has departed from generic primary colours, instead reworked with black-and-white, sci-fi overtones, taking its title from the mythology of an effigy discovered in Dagenham believed to date from around 2250 BC. Raisa, a 10-year-old girl, tells me: ‘The see-through bit makes you feel like you’re going to fall. But the slide is the best, it gives you an adrenalin rush.’ I ask her about the design. ‘Some of the pictures up the wall are cool, but a bit scary and odd,’ she replies.

Commissioned by Create, The Idol is part of the £14m Abbey Sports Centre. Photo Credit: Emil Charlaff
Commissioned by Create, The Idol is part of the £14m Abbey Sports Centre. Photo Credit: Emil Charlaff

Franky, seven, agrees. ‘I like the slide when it goes bumpy because it makes me feel weird.’ He adds: ‘I like feeling weird.’ Chetwynd was commissioned by the charity Create, whose interest lies in infiltrating artists and designers into social projects in different ways. ‘It had to be functional, stimulating and interesting to adults, but also cut the mustard as a critically acclaimed artwork and contemporary sculpture,’ Chetwynd tells me. I ask what would she like the children to feel as they use it. ‘I’d like them to feel pride that it’s in their area, like civic pride.’

The Idol takes its name from an 2250 BC effigy discovered in Dagenham. Photo Credit: Emil Charlaff
The Idol takes its name from an 2250 BC effigy discovered in Dagenham. Photo Credit: Emil Charlaff

‘The presence of play in art emerges periodically,’ says Ralph Rugoff, director at London’s Hayward Gallery, where Höller has a survey show this summer. ‘It goes in cycles, and this definitely seems like a moment.’ In 2009, the art commissioner Artangel hosted the one-day conference called There’s an Artist in the Playground that examined play’s connection to adult concerns, which included, in the words of the marketing material: ‘responsibility, risk, fun, recovery, politics, inclusion, conflict, environment, belonging, being’.

Carsten Höller’s Isomeric Slides cascades down the Hayward Gallery, part of his major summer show Decision. Photo Credit: The Artist and Luma Foundation, Arles, Photo David Levene
Carsten Höller’s Isomeric Slides cascades down the Hayward Gallery, part of his major summer show Decision. Photo Credit: The Artist and Luma Foundation, Arles, Photo David Levene

Notable British artists concerned with play include Gary Webb, whose Squeaky Clean (2012) is a permanent playground and interactive public sculpture in Greenwich’s Charlton Park, and Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, who presented Sacrilege in 2012, a life-size, inflatable, bouncy-castle replica of Stonehenge. Artist Katarzyna Zimna published Time to Play: Action and Interaction in Contemporary Art in 2014, a book that links 20th- and 21st-century art with studies of play, games and leisure, and the theories of Kant, Gadamer and Derrida. Last year’s Glasgow International Festival saw Play Summit, a threeday event curated by artist Nils Norman and Assemble, an 18-strong collective working across the fields of art, architecture and design. The remit was to explore the state of play in Scotland and beyond, and the event was attended by Chetwynd, who cited it as inspiration for tendering for the Dagenham soft-play commission.

Snake by Carsten Höller, 2013. Photo Credit: The Artist and Air De Paris, Paris, Photo: Marc Domage
Snake by Carsten Höller, 2013. Photo Credit: The Artist and Air De Paris, Paris, Photo: Marc Domage

Enshrined under Article 31 in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the importance of play is deadly serious, although not always valued. In Britain, as funding has dropped for play provision, the science has surged ahead, showing that quality play stimulates essential brain ‘plasticity’ and is an essential pathway to cognitive, developmental and physical growth. Where play doesn’t occur, brain cells rigidify, in a process referred to as ‘synapse elimination’, with chronically play-deprived children experiencing mental problems, restrictions in brain growth and depression. The leading theorist on children’s play, Bob Hughes, goes one step further, connecting it with the survival skills of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Made From Scratch builds play spaces to children’s designs
Made From Scratch builds play spaces to children’s designs

One of the main reasons for play deprivation, and a clear casualty of modernity, is the drastic reduction of ‘roaming’ – the extent to which children’s play and travel is negotiated autonomously of adults. It has been reduced by fears of traffic, children engaging in risky activity and ‘stranger danger’. Into this vacuum, adventure playgrounds, more than any other play spaces, are the unsung heroes, compensating for children’s restriction. Completely free to access, they provide a range of activities, including opportunities for physical risk, and offer an authentic space to experiment and self-learn.

Made From Scratch has so far built eight playgrounds and one adventure playground
Made From Scratch has so far built eight playgrounds and one adventure playground

Children at Northworld Primary school take part in building thier own playground
Children at Northworld Primary school take part in building thier own playground

The first was created in Copenhagen in 1943 by landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen, and was known as a skrammellegepladsen, meaning ‘junk playground’. In England at the time, children were playing on bombsites, building dens and re-playing war, and inadvertently dying because of collapsing walls and unexploded devices. When the English landscape architect and philanthropist Lady Allen of Hurtwood saw the skrammellegepladsen in 1946 during a lecture tour, she realised Britain needed dedicated play spaces. The first UK junk playground (later called adventure playgrounds) opened in 1948 in Camberwell, south London, on the site of a bombed church.

Iraq’s first adventure playground, created by Made From Scratch, in the Kurdish town of Halabja
Iraq’s first adventure playground, created by Made From Scratch, in the Kurdish town of Halabja

Today, with British councils decreasing funding both for playgrounds and art initiatives, ‘utilitarian’ arts projects such as Chetwynd’s The Idol might offer a new hybrid way forward.

But can the art world and the play world integrate with integrity? ‘The problem is that artists can possibly do damage if they don’t understand about the science of play,’ says Jess Milne, who for 11 years managed Hackney Play Association’s Play Training Unit, and who is also a qualified art teacher. ‘And I mean that in the sense of creating things for art and for themselves, rather than for children to look at, and work with and see through and generally participate in.’

Assemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock takes shape. Photo Credit: AssembleAssemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock takes shape. Photo Credit: Assemble

Fergus P. Hughes defined play in 1982 as ‘freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated’. Yet despite all the scientific advancements made in understanding what play does and how it affects the brain, many adults still find it hard not to take control. ‘It’s very difficult to remove the adult and the adult’s ego,’ says Milne. ‘It’s the same for everyone – parents, playworkers, artists.’

Assemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock takes shape. Photo Credit: Assemble
Assemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock takes shape. Photo Credit: Assemble

Yet art and play share the same goals, according to Gemma Mudu, co-director of social design enterprise Made From Scratch, which builds play spaces to children’s designs.

‘Artists and children are each absorbed in a line of enquiry, questioning the role of existence,’ says Mudu. ‘Both are getting to grips with the nature of being and expressing it through different ways. We see great potential for cross-fertilisation with artists aware of play sensibilities.’ Lizzy Longtale, her co-director, agrees: ‘In many ways adventure playgrounds should be seen as ongoing art installations.’

Assemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock takes shape. Photo Credit: AssembleAssemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock takes shape. Photo Credit: Assemble

Set up in 2011, Made From Scratch has already built eight different playgrounds and one adventure playground, with seven further builds in the pipeline. Their budgets are small – the average cost for a playground is between £30,000 and £70,000, with smaller playgrounds costing £15,000. ‘We invite kids to take inspiration from landscapes, art galleries, paintings, sculptures and immersive spaces so that they’re not just thinking about the conventional format of play structures,’ says Longtale. ‘A special project is Made from Scratch’s work on Iraq’s first adventure playground in the Kurdish town of Halabja.

‘Initially we had to deal with the community representative who dreamed of a neat, sterile, Disney fairground,’ explains Longtale. ‘Explaining loose parts theory – the need for an infinite variety of materials for children to play with, such as sand, timber, pipes, tubes and fabrics – was challenging. He kept saying, “When are you going to take all this rubbish away?”‘ The playground is in its final stages of completion before handover to the community, when it will support play for up to 80 children. Ironically, Made From Scratch had to travel to Iraq to work on an adventure playground. Longtale says: ‘There is no funding here anymore for new community adventure playgrounds, so we work on playgrounds in schools. But we always try and link the children up with local adventure playgrounds that already exist.’

Assemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock takes shape. Photo Credit: Assemble
Assemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock takes shape. Photo Credit: Assemble

Assemble, the co-curator of Glasgow International’s Play Summit, has created the Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock, an impoverished area of Glasgow. Delivered in collaboration with Create, the project has helped bag the collective a nomination for this year’s Turner Prize. Hadrian Garrard, director of Create, remains on the playground’s board of directors. ‘This wasn’t about making a pretty artwork,’ he tells me. ‘Assemble was interested in getting the right set of conditions for a community space. The Turner Prize nomination picks up on the opportunities for artists and designers to move into territory managed in the past by government authorities.’

Architect and Assemble member Amica Dall explains what attracted the group to this territory. ‘We’ve always been very aware of the limits of what you can do with design, and of how much design is asked to do that isn’t necessarily in the realm of design with a capital ‘D’. I would argue for a more expanded notion of design. For example, systems have to be designed, organisations have to be designed, arguments have to be designed. These things add up to make situations and environments that are not just physical. In many design situations, all the critical decisions have already been made by the time the architect gets involved. Doing self-initiated work is a way to be part of more stages of the process.

The Brutalist Playground, a collaboration between Assemble and artist Simon Terrill at the RIBA. Photo Credit: Photo by Tristan Fewings Getty Images For Riba
The Brutalist Playground, a collaboration between Assemble and artist Simon Terrill at the RIBA. Photo Credit: Photo by Tristan Fewings Getty Images For RIBA

‘The adventure playground is the epitome of that approach because while we are creating an environment where physical things need to happen, there has also been the human aspect, the organisational aspect, the financial aspect, the legal aspect, the political aspect. All of those ducks have to be put in line to create this environment. I think that’s common to a lot of our work: creating the conditions of possibility and being responsible.’

Assemble’s interest in play has also led it to collaborate with artist Simon Terrill on The Brutalist Playground, at London’s RIBA this summer which recreates in foam the concrete playgrounds designed for post-war housing blocks.

Ralph Rugoff has commissioned many artists to create site-specific environments at the Hayward Gallery. I ask him whether it would be good for such artists to create municipal spaces in the public realm. ‘People in the design world can be a bit abstract, while artists are very attuned to the way we experience things. So there is a role,’ he concludes. ‘Although,’ he adds wryly, ‘it might work best with those who play well in teams.’

Mudu is also optimistic about the potential of artists, as long as they prioritise play. ‘It’s such a balance. If it’s about art coming into the community, the priority is the art. But if the primary focus is to have a quality play space, then the priority is the play.’ With health and safety fears rising and funding being cut, play deprivation is likely to become more endemic in the UK. Perhaps, if play was rebranded to seem to be the serious issue it is – ‘self-learning’ – those who hold the purse strings might give it greater importance. ‘Most people think play is a leisure activity,’ Mudu continues. ‘For adults it’s about extreme sensation and about getting some form of pleasure. For kids it’s a necessity.’

This article was published in Blueprint

Taut, urgent and elegant – this is why we long for the short story

June 12, 2015
Passion: Rebecca Swirsky believes in the power of small (Photo: Graham Shakleton)Passion: Rebecca Swirsky believes in the power of small (Photo: Graham Shakleton)

As a short-story writer, I am often asked by friends and family: ”So, when are you going to write a novel?” A literary urban myth persists that a collection of short stories is easier to write and less substantial to read than a novel, as if fewer words mean less work for the writer and less reward for the reader. Yet the opposite is true: every word counts in a short story. Consider the most extreme example of a short story, six words penned by Ernest Hemingway: ”For sale, babies shoes, never worn.”

Well-constructed stories, doing more with less, are like acrobats in a box, performing tricks in tiny spaces, a fact that will be highlighted at next week’s London Short Story Festival. The condensed word count allows for elegance, tautness and urgency, as readers become aware of an imminent end. Any overstatement, inaccuracy or flagging moment – so easily ignored while reading a long novel – can kill a short story’s delicate form.

Vanessa Gebbie, critically acclaimed for her novel The Coward’s Tale as well as the short-story collection Words from a Glass Bubble, and Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, reveres both forms. ”I’m often asked whether the short story is a good grounding for the novel, as if somehow, the longer form is superior to the shorter, or a natural progression,” she says. ”Having written both, I can say the story and the novel are such different beasts. When a reader says, ‘Short stories are always disappointing, as you just get into one and it finishes,’ I want to say, ‘Read for the pleasure of the words and what they reveal. You have to gift a short story your time and it will gift you itself.'”

Short stories, then, are something of a paradox – they can be quicker to read but they demand more time to delight in and decipher, as their richness and complexities become clear. Take Vladimir Nabokov’s story Symbols and Signs, published in the New Yorker in 1948, that focuses on an elderly couple’s attempt to visit their son in a sanitarium. The son suffers from a malady of reading symbols into life, yet the story’s title is a cue to ”read” for signs embedded in the text. In a letter to Katharine A. White, The New Yorker’s fiction editor at the time, Nabokov described this style as one in which “a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial semi-transparent one.” The surface story might be straightforward, but seeping through is a bigger, secondary story regarding vulnerability and the unknowability of life.

Magazines such as the New Yorker have long supported the short story in the United States, and a diverse array of American writers – Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, George Saunders, Lydia Davis, Edith Pearlman and Jennifer Egan – have between them won two Pulitzers, the Man Booker International Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, the US National Book Critic’s Circle Award and the Folio Prize for their short fiction in recent years. But there are also some signs that the short story is gaining momentum in this country.

This month sees the second year of the London Short Story Festival, with participants ranging from Marina Warner and Deborah Levy to Ben Okri and Helen Simpson. The number of British short-story courses and events are multiplying, while prestigious competitions including the Sunday Times EGKG Prize (the world’s richest short story award), the BBC National Book Award and the Bridport Prize offer possibilities of cachet and cash. In 2013, Sarah Hall called for a Short Story Laureate, to give due consideration to the form.

Three years ago, the publishers Bloomsbury declared 2012 “The Year of the Short Story”, acquiring five new collections and publishing one a month from January to May.

So where does short fiction now stand in market terms against its heftier cousin? Alexandra Pringle, Bloomsbury’s editor-in-chief, is cautious. ”There is a shift, yes. The big prizes, the short-story festivals, are all part of a build that’s happening. George Saunders winning the Folio Prize was a fantastic step forward. But it’s a slow process. Compared to America, England is behind. We would never get a book of short stories on the Sunday Times bestseller list, for example.”

Given that short stories will never make me rich, why do I return to them? The answer, like anything in the arts, is for deep pleasure. I derive satisfaction from writing about the deceptively ordinary, seemingly unimportant events that can define a human being – the short story as pivotal incident, life seen through the lens of the everyday and humdrum. In a novel’s vaster space, the significance of these moments can be lost. In other words, to think big, I go small, and write short.

The writer is included in this year’s ‘Best of British Short Stories’ anthology. The London Short Story Festival runs from June 18- 21 at Waterstones Piccadilly. For more details,

This article was first published in The Jewish Chronicle

Have You Been Good? – Vanessa Nicholson

Nicholson was born to two art historians, later to become one herself: the often absent, gay Ben Nicolson, editor of The Burlington Magazine, with whom she enjoyed a closeness before his early death, and the formidable, unreliably attentive Luisa Vertova, employed by Christie’s in Italy. Following her parents’ early separation, Nicolson lived in Florence for four years, holidays in England taken either at Sissinghurst Castle, or being shunted around “like a parcel”. Memorably, she vented her misery by killing a newborn kitten.

Boarding at a “Hippie’s Paradise” liberal English school, she navigated her mother’s capricious ill-will and enjoyed dope-smoking sessions with her father in his Holland Park flat. Abortions, depression and aimlessness ensued. Too posh and privileged for some situations, not enough for others, she spent 15 minutes mistaking a butler for someone’s husband, and recalled the anxiety of approaching Sissinghurst with a boyfriend, convinced he would feel out of place, Sissinghurst appearing as “an entire Elizabethan town in a film set”.

Like her daughter’s rose motif tattoo, now worn by husband Andrew and daughter Ellie, grief has taken root and flowered in Nicolson’s present-day family. Strangers’ kindnesses and cruelties are recorded, including the drunken comment of an unnamed Sissinghurst guest of Nicolson’s cousin: “You seem remarkably unaffected by grief!” In the immediate aftermath there were the surreal practicalities of discussing recycling her dead daughter’s eyes at the hospital. Now, there is the visceral taste of grief, “mud in my mouth”.

Meshing Nicolson’s childhood with her daughter’s death has provided a study of poverty embedded in cultural privilege, alternated with parental loss. The grief is searing. Yet while part of grief’s process is voicing its trauma, the memoir’s tone occasionally feels self-lacerating, an attempt to be heard. On her 30th birthday, Nicolson received a letter. “You are sharp and selfish and arrogant…” went her mother’s words. Of course, the letter was filed away.

Nicolson addresses the issue of recipiency in her acknowledgements. Initially, she believed she had written for Rosa, “who would never be able to hear my story”. Later, she realised it was for “another significant person who cannot hear”, allowing her to voice “the things she [Luisa] will not speak about”. At 94, Luisa is unaware of the memoir’s existence, a situation unlikely to change. Poignantly, Nicolson ends her acknowledgements with the words Ti voglio bene: I love you.

In recording her own roles as both daughter and mother, Nicolson has penned a double helix to motherhood. It accounts for the many shades of experience that shouldn’t be, but so frequently are, endured in families, irrelevant of privilege.

Have You Been Good? is published by Granta (£16.99). Click here to buy it for £12.74

This review was first published in The Observer

An exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park allows for an inhabitation of Henry Moore’s visionary altering of figure and landscape

‘The form of land was my father’s vocabulary,’ explains Mary Moore, Henry Moore’s only child, as our press pack walks around the survey of his work at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. ‘And if there was anything he understood, it was scale.’ Scale is in abundance here at the park, where 120 of Moore’s works have been installed in its rolling vistas and gallery, in collaboration with the Henry Moore Foundation. By curating a room of her father’s artefacts, Mary Moore has added a personal touch.

The Yorkshire-born sculptor was a founding patron of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and believed in placing sculpture in landscape, where it might be anchored by the earth or drawn upwards into the sky, invigorated by the changing seasons. Sheep wander freely in the park, animals Moore believed to be the perfect size to appreciate his work, and pieces have been sited with careful consideration to their interplay with the environment.

The exhibition’s title Back to a Land is drawn from Jacquetta Hawkes’ back-to-nature book A Land (1951). In those pages, Hawkes noted her admiration for the artist: ‘Rodin pursued the idea of conscious, spiritual man emerging from the rock … Moore sees him rather as always a part of it.’ In return, Moore illustrated a 1954 edition of Hawkes’ book; the art works he provided Hawkes with are featured in the exhibition. And the presentation of Moore’s artefacts, notes, sketches and photographs have been informed by Mary’s close knowledge of her father, while the commission of Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage to write poems for the exhibition catalogue draws on Moore’s life-long interest in poetry.

The park’s Underground Gallery has been reconfigured to halt incoming light that would be detrimental to Moore’s drawings, with two main doors closed, and entrances created in walls between two of the four display rooms. Moore’s drawings, some of which have never been shown, are an essential addition to the show; while Moore is best known for his sculptures, his drawings represent a quieter form of excellence. The artist’s delicate, rhythmic studies of nature such as Clouds in Sky (1982) and Northern Landscape: Iceberg (1980) connect with the poetic lineage of Turner and Constable, and his Stonehenge lithographic series (1973) crackles with the dualities of near/far, light/dark and heavy/fragile.


Large Two Forms (1969)

Elsewhere in the gallery sculptures include Moore’s signature figures, such as the fecund-looking female Working Model for Reclining Woman: Elbow (1981). Moore expressed the hope that his sculpture had ‘a force, is a life, is a vitality inside it’ and these reclining forms can be seen as repositories for such energy. Meanwhile, Mary Moore’s room reveals her father’s interests in ethnography. Displayed in vitrines, his collection includes Columbian, Mayan, African and Egyptian pieces in addition to the sculptural vertebrae of a Minke whale, alongside assorted ink bottles, maquettes and drawings. When I asked Mary if the curatorial process had revealed any surprises about her father, she replied: ‘Two little plaster maquettes sit in the central display case, probably from King and Queen [1952-53, cast 1957]. My mother used to place her hands in a very gentle, delicate, resting position in her lap. It was only this morning that I looked at those maquettes and realised the hands and the arms in King and Queen are those of my mother.’

Outside, the deer park contrasts with the more formal setting of the gallery; rangers confide that children love to jump through Moore’s colossal bronze Large Two Forms (1969), and the water-slick appearance of Reclining Figure: Angles (1979) invites viewers to journey slowly around its complex 3-D perspective. Although Moore’s works contribute to outside space, outside space clearly contributes to Moore’s work, allowing his sculptures to be lifted through breadth, scale, perspective and unexpected interactions. The most unexpected, we are reminded, was when Reclining Figure: Hand, LH709 (1979) was impacted by a Real IRA car bomb at the BBC TV Centre in London’s Wood Lane. Small glass pieces were embedded around the figure’s knee and chest areas, and although later removed, the bronze blended and re-coloured, a palimpsest of that political history remains.

Moore was known for being anti-establishment, choosing English stone during the 1920s and ’30s rather than the classical Italian marble of Carrara beloved of academies. But, as Mary Moore recalls, the artist in his later years spent time reflecting on his place in the canon. ‘Sculptors like my father, especially when they reached their 60s, started defining themselves against Cimabue and Giotto and Masaccio and those guys – the A-listers – and thinking about how they will measure up with eternity.’ Moore’s response to those concerns was to create a language specifically his own, inviting us to see both figure and landscape through his visionary eyes. Back to a Land is a chance to inhabit that vocabulary.

This review was first published in Architectural Review, May 2015.

Remaking the Whitworth Gallery

MUMA architects’ transformation of Manchester’s Whitworth opens with a bang

Not everyone recalls that the Whitworth Art Gallery was the first British public gallery to acquire a Picasso. Or that this painting, Poverty (1903), together with Gauguin’s Tahitian Landscape (1891) and Van Gogh’s The Fortification of Paris with Houses (1878), was stolen from the gallery in a 2003 heist, before being evetually located in a public lavatory.

Twelve years later, the Whitworth is enjoying happier days. Its £15m transformation by MUMA architects has been a success, and its programme of events to mark its reopening in February hoped to welcome both international visitors and a local audience from Moss Side, the poverty-stricken ward bordering the gallery. ‘When we initially visited the Whitworth, we were touched by kids wandering in from the park without parents, finding themselves a place to be,’ said Stuart McKnight of MUMA during a press view. When asked about what art he was most excited to see in the spaces he designed for the Whitworth, McKnight replied, ‘I like art that is beautiful and interesting. Cornelia Parker’s work is both.’

As the key attraction of the opening programme, Parker’s major survey show takes centre stage in the central exhibition gallery, a vaulting space with rib-like louvres and soaring views across the park. On entering, you feel like you are Jonah, taking refuge in the belly of a great whale. Parker has selected works that not only interplay with one another but also complement the architecture of the building itself, utilising the full extent of the gallery’s volume. In symmetrical arrangement from the ceiling hang Composition with Horns (Double Flat) (2005) and Rorschach (Accidental I) (2005) – flattened tubas, trumpets and trombones, and a Chekhovian Mad Hatter’s tea party of samovars, soup ladles and candelabras. In The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached) (2003), Parker famously took Rodin’s sculpture The Kiss and wrapped it in string; here it sits in bound ardour on the building’s central axis, while on the floor nearby, her casts of pavement cracks Black Path (Bunhill Fields) (2013) and Jerusalem (2015) rest on nails, delicately playing with the space.

Two smaller galleries flank this main room and present dramatic installations by Parker. Her most significant early work, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), throws out spectacular, frozen shadow from the innards of a garden shed that are hung from the ceiling like a huge mobile, while War Room, created for the Whitworth show, is an immersive space draped with reels of red paper from which thousands of Remembrance Day poppies have been cut out.


Hanging symmetrically, Rorscach (Accidental 1) suspends a flattened Chekhovian Mad Hatter’s tea party of samovars, soup ladles and candelabras

Parker understands well the elegiac presence of absence, an absence we often try to forget. I asked the Whitworth’s director Dr Maria Balshaw about the choice of reopening the building with work by a female artist, in the context of women being generally so under-represented in the art world. ‘We do have a lot of women artists on show at the Whitworth,’ she replied, ‘but only because they’re really good. That’s fair.’

Alongside Parker’s show, the Whitworth’s opening programme celebrates a broad range of historic and contemporary fine art, as well as applied art such as textiles and wall hangings. Not everything is a success. The room exhibiting Turner, Blake and Cozens watercolours and drawings, a collection bequeathed by John Edward Taylor, combines low light, dark wall paint and little space between works, making viewing difficult. Such close hanging has better impact in the portraiture room, in which individuals connected to the gallery are honoured, including Sir Joseph Whitworth, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud – the result is an eclectic Salon, or grand ‘Who’s Who’.

Other highlights include a 45-metre long gunpowder drawing by Chinese-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang, two exhibitions of British and American contemporary artworks donated by the Karpidas Foundation, Johnnie Shand Kydd’s photographs featuring youthful-looking YBAs holidaying on the famous Greek island of Hydra, and, ahead of her representation of England in the Venice Biennale, a gallery papered with Sarah Lucas’s Tits in Space (2000), providing candid backdrop to the artist’s suggestive sculptures.

‘The idea is that as you move around the building, you are always catching a glimpse of the next bit of art,’ Balshaw explained. ‘Sightlines pull you to the other end of the building.’ This awareness of environment is extended outwards. Balshaw’s brief to MUMA included a quote by Margaret Pilkington, an honorary director of the Whitworth for 20 years. In 1932 Pilkington said, ‘I have come to the conclusion that a good museum or gallery is a place where people feel comfortable. If it stands in a garden or a park, one should be able to contemplate the beauty of the outdoors as a counterpoint to the beauty within.’ So landscape designer Sarah Price, a Gold Medallist at the Chelsea Flower Show, has created numerous green areas suitable for displaying outdoor artworks, and MUMA’s new west-facing windowed promenade unlocks the surrounding environment for visitors, who are free to enjoy the trees ‘greening up’ as winter turns to spring.

In this way, MUMA’s designs share the same spirit of Parker’s artworks: both take the ordinary and transform it to reveal rich new life.

This article was first published in Architectural Review in March 2015