Alice Spawls

Alice Spawls is co-editor of the LRB.

Short Cuts: Beyond Images

Alice Spawls, 1 April 2021

In​ no particular order: the first significant piece of crime legislation since 1986 was introduced to Parliament on 9 March. Among other things, it restores the offence of ‘intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance’. During a Black Lives Matter demonstration in London last summer, mounted police charged at protesters, who threw small missiles and larger objects at the...

At the Type Archive

Alice Spawls, 2 July 2020

TheType Archive near Stockwell in London used to be a hospital for cab horses and circus animals, but since 1992 it has been home to every sort of mould, matrix, burin, bodkin and slug. The archive holds typographical apparatus from the last six hundred years, but its main collection relates to the technology of Monotype printing. That capital letter is important: this isn’t the...

At the Ponds

Alice Spawls, 12 September 2019

Swimming​ in the wild or nearly wild has grown unrelentingly in popularity over the last ten years, and no one can deny that it feels wonderful: if not at the time, then certainly afterwards. For Londoners the locus of the activity is Hampstead Heath, with its three ponds: women’s, men’s and mixed. There are cold water lidos at Brockwell and Hillingdon and Tooting Bec, as well...

Next door​ to the London Review Bookshop is a firm of architects, Rodić Davidson, who often have interesting displays in their windows. Usually these relate to the tools and forms of their trade, but at the moment they have six stirring, whirling automata created by Paul Spooner. They can be observed in motion on the hour, every hour, but are almost as nice when they are still. Three of...

At Tate Modern: Pierre Bonnard

Alice Spawls, 21 March 2019

From​ time to time I’ve had the experience of revisiting a novel only to find that a scene which I thought had made a strong impression on me wasn’t there at all, or only passingly, and that my imagination had done the rest. Pierre Bonnard seems to have painted in this way – as a reader rather than a writer. He didn’t paint from life, but made drawings and noted down...

On the Sofa: ‘Killing Eve’

Alice Spawls, 8 November 2018

Eve Polastri​ works for MI5, organising police protection for high-profile foreign visitors. She’s bored, though she doesn’t entirely know it. The girlfriend of Victor Kedrin, a Russian sex trafficker murdered in Vienna, is put in her charge. Eve arrives at the briefing late, hungover, trying to eat a croissant from a paper bag without making a noise. She blurts out that the...

The​ Pastons of Norfolk were an accidentally remarkable family. The survival of their detailed correspondence – the first of its sort in English – means we know the 15th-century Pastons better than we know any medieval king or queen. The letters, first published in 1787, revealed a family on the make. Clement Paston, a yeoman farmer born at the end of the 14th century, set his...

On the Road

Alice Spawls, 8 February 2018

If​ you cycle into Central London every day you see a lot of road: tarmac, grit, paving stone, cobble; the skin of the city. Cyclists are supposed to look ahead, and I try to, but as a child I mostly looked at my shoes and now I find I look at the road. The ground beneath our wheels is noisy, full of instruction, and the roads have their own language, even their own typography....

If It Weren’t for Charlotte: The Brontës

Alice Spawls, 16 November 2017

I should make the first of what I hope need be only a few confessions. We are in the business of history, but also of opinion, of trying to read the characters of the dead. I am not a 19th-century scholar, a Brontë expert, a Brontë fan even. A year ago, I was not interested in Charlotte, or her mysterious sisters or feckless brother, or their eccentric father, and I was certainly not interested in her charming publisher or her upright critics. I was not interested in hearing what the Brontës were, what they have become, or what they were definitely, almost certainly, assuredly, not. I did not want to visit Haworth.

At Dulwich: Vanessa Bell

Alice Spawls, 18 May 2017

It​ seems to be a foregone conclusion that Vanessa Bell isn’t much good. There are those devoted types, of course, for whom the sensibility of her paintings, as well as their subjects, makes them windows into a beloved world. But perhaps they are seeing something more than this. If so, it shouldn’t be surprising; they have been looking the longest. The current retrospective of...

The photographer​ Sally Mann tells a story about being at a dinner party with Cy Twombly – the two were friends from their hometown of Lexington, Virginia. ‘He was writing directions for somebody – how to get to the antique mall or something – and he wrote them and the guy said, “Oh yes, I know where that is,” and they left them on the table, and I swear...

Christmas Trees

Alice Spawls, 5 January 2017

At​ the carol concert in St Martin-in-the-Fields, two weeks before Christmas, shoppers and squawking babies filled the church’s elegant interior. It’s a sort of Christmas cake of a building, with dark panelling and white stucco icing, but the only hints of the season were the looping boughs of fir hung from the galleries. Outside, however, hundreds of men in Santa suits (who...

At the Shops

Alice Spawls, 22 September 2016

‘Jai vu​ une robe charmante, faite de bouchons de liège,’ said Apollinaire. He can’t have been walking through Mayfair, where the autumn fashions have just been unveiled. If there’s anything to be cheerful about as the nights creep in, it’s the sudden appearance of cashmere and velvet that it’s still too hot to wear. The season comes to the...

List your enemies: Deborah Levy

Alice Spawls, 16 June 2016

In Almería​ in the heat of summer, the temperature reaches 40 degrees, and no rain falls. It looks like a lunar landscape: parched, craterous, unreal. In the distance, white tents incubate tomatoes, artificially hydrated. Gas canisters stand in the sand like strange desert plants; cargo ships float past to Greece. Against this largeness, Sofia Papastergiadis, postgraduate anthropology...

Does one flare or cling?

Alice Spawls, 5 May 2016

British Vogue was born in September 1916, when German U-boats prevented the Americans from transporting their edition to British shores. Condé Nast, who had bought the US version in 1909, wasn’t taking any risks by launching a British edition: American Vogue was the second most popular reading material in the trenches (after the Saturday Evening Post) and that was just the men. Its US editor, Edna Woolman Chase, claimed they liked the frills and furbelows: ‘a vastly different diet from mud and uniforms, boredom and death’.

Around Here: Drifting into the picture

Alice Spawls, 4 February 2016

When​ I walk up Bury Place on my way from Little Russell Street and the London Review office, I get the same view of the British Museum that Vilhelm Hammershøi recorded in 1906. Sometimes it’s hard to see what’s really there and not the painting. The row of buildings – now mostly hotels – that runs down Montague Street to the east of the museum is unchanged,...

At Dulwich Picture Gallery: Ravilious

Alice Spawls, 27 August 2015

Eric Ravilious’s watercolours are so cleverly executed and reproduce with such finish that you have to get up close to see how they are done. His later drawings (as he called them) do things that shouldn’t be possible – how could he know just how the brush would dry as he made the stroke, so that the fading colour gives a sense of distance, or how that never entirely smooth movement would produce a neat stippled effect to mimic the play of pale light on a field, a stony path, clouds?

Riccardo Selvatico​, the progressive mayor of Venice in the early 1890s and author of poems and comic plays, lost his post to a less secular, less intellectually minded candidate before the inauguration of his great scheme for the city, the Biennale, in 1895. Selvatico must have known his time was short: construction began in May 1894, only a month after the idea was announced at a meeting...

At Tate Liverpool: Leonora Carrington

Alice Spawls, 23 April 2015

‘The women surrealists​ were considered secondary to the male,’ Leonora Carrington reported; their role was to inspire, as well as cook and clean. But she was never comfortable with being a muse, or as Breton cast her, the femme enfant whose naive access to the unconscious made her the ideal conduit for the male artist. Only women, he thought, had ‘the illuminism of lucid...

But she read Freud: Flora Thompson

Alice Spawls, 19 February 2015

An outsider​ by birth as well as by disposition, Flora Thompson took solitary pleasure in observing her fellow villagers. She stored away characters and scenes from an early age – the naughty children who pulled her hair, Queenie who spoke to bees, the annual pig killing, May Day, the harvest – but published nothing until she was in her thirties, and nothing on her childhood...

Little​ more than forty years separate Poe’s Dupin, the original fictional detective, and A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes’s first outing, but by the time Conan Doyle put pen to paper everyone was reading detective stories. In the intervening years they multiplied out of sensation and mystery novels, gothic melodramas, feuilletons, casebooks and crime reports and became a...

Pleased to Be Loony: The Janeites

Alice Spawls, 8 November 2012

Claudia Johnson begins with a ghost story. One summer morning, as she sat by the leaded gothic windows of her Princeton study editing the Norton Critical Edition of Mansfield Park, she was stumped about where a comma ought to go. In the second sentence of the eighth chapter there is a discrepancy between the first and second edition of the novel: did Mr Rushworth’s mother come ‘to...

From The Blog
23 February 2017

The Zabludowicz Collection in Kentish Town is housed in a former Methodist chapel. The building became home to the London Drama School in 1963 – they were the first in Britain to use Stanislavsky’s system – and remained so until 2004. Ten years ago it opened as a gallery, showing works from the collection of the Finnish-British millionaire Poju Zabludowicz (his private investment company owns, among other things, half of downtown Las Vegas; he’s also a major Tory Party donor) and his wife, Anita. A former acting school seems like an appropriate venue for their current exhibition, One & Other, curated by a group of MA students, which is concerned with personas and performance (it closes on Sunday).

From The Blog
10 June 2016

The story of a village is inscribed on its tombstones. Families are listed by names and dates, their marriages, births and declines, the work done and the long struggle; how someone was shot accidentally, walking across a field, or succumbed to illness, or simply fell asleep. The village’s history is in its street signs and buildings, the etymology of its name and what might be left of a mill or forge, and the church, with its one good stained glass window, its few marks of distinction, coats of arms and hassocks embroidered with local signifiers. In the church or by the roadside, the names of another set of the dead are inscribed: those whose bodies never returned to their parish; the war dead. But 53 villages in England and Wales have no First World War memorial because all their men returned. In his King’s England guidebooks of the 1930s, Arthur Mee calls them the Thankful Villages. Fifty-three doesn’t seem like very many. Only 14 are ‘doubly thankful’, and lost no men in the Second World War either.

From The Blog
6 April 2016

On the high streets of small towns, the success stories are Primark, Greggs, Wilko, Poundland and variety shops like Tiger. Card and gift emporiums are ubiquitous. In this unpropitious climate, Waterstones is holding out with almost 300 shops, recovering – according to the figures – from near failure four years ago. The owner, Alexander Mamut, has invested over £50 million. James Daunt was brought in to give the shops more character and relax central control: booksellers can decide which books to promote and tailor their own displays. But it isn’t all about the books.

From The Blog
18 September 2015

In Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, published in 1978 but set in the late 1950s (and based on her experience in a Southwold bookshop), Florence Green decides to open the only bookshop in Hardborough, a place with no fish and chips, no cinema, no laundrette, an ‘island between sea and river’. Ripping Yarns, the Highgate bookshop which will close on Sunday, is on a sort of island too, between Highgate Village and Muswell Hill.

From The Blog
29 July 2015

Witches always come in threes, and gothic spinster sisters too, so an early photograph of three severe looking women must be the Brontë sisters – mustn't it? – especially if the scribble on the back could be read as their pen name, Bell. ‘Relikes been they, as wenen they echoon,’ says Chaucer’s Pardoner; everyone wants to believe in relics and to know what lady novelists looked like (Shakespeare too, but no one seems too fussed by what Smollett or Thackeray looked like, though we have pictures). The photo, bought on eBay for £15 by someone convinced it's of the Brontës, is a collodion positive, the slow process (it takes up to fifteen minutes to develop) which began to replace daguerreotypes in the 1850s, and was itself replaced by gelatin plates not long after. Anne and Emily were both dead by 1850, so to be a picture of the Brontës this would have to be a photograph of an earlier daguerreotype.

From The Blog
17 July 2015

There was general upset earlier this year when TFL revealed that the redevelopment of Tottenham Court Road station would lead to the removal of portions of Eduardo Paolozzi’s 1984 mosaics. The 20th-Century Society called – again – for a register of public art and bemoaned English Heritage’s failure to list them (as they had the water fountains at the station, also removed). Most of the murals, TFL says 95 per cent, remain in situ and are being restored, but the arches at the top of the escalators, which made going underground look like descending into Ali Baba’s futurist cave, are gone.

From The Blog
17 October 2014

There are champagne and pizza in the courtyard at Frieze but no ashtrays, so attendants with brooms circulate two paces behind the smokers, collecting the debris. Inside, the bins are concealed in the walls to save visitors the embarrassment of admiring, or trying to buy, non-art that could easily be confused with the art-art. Safe in its playground, the art-art makes the most of this: it's all over the floor. Dog bowls with a little water beneath one picture, three pears near a wall, oversized wine glasses, a pile of vegetables.

From The Blog
30 September 2014

The Open House weekend, when buildings across London open their doors to visitors, gets bigger every year: the most recent, its 23rd, featured more than 800 buildings and 2600 architect-led tours. Part of the pleasure lies in discovering so much of the city that is hidden from you: 10 Downing Street, the Cheesegrater, banks, halls and bell-towers; it's like walking onto a movie set, or into another life. It also indulges your nosiness about how other people live (and where): who knew there’s a three-bedroom flat at the top of St Pancras Station's clock tower, or that Lewisham has a whole cul-de-sac built on stilts?

From The Blog
24 September 2014

Francesca Woodman’s early death, at the age of 22, has cast a long shadow over her work. In the preceding years (her father gave her a camera when she was 13), especially those spent at Rhode Island School of Design and in New York, she produced a wealth of images: there are more than 10,000 negatives. This leaves a problem for her estate (her parents, George and Betty Woodman, are both artists) and her curators: it has been left to others to select, group and edit her archive. Eight hundred prints have been made, of which fewer than two hundred have been exhibited.

From The Blog
12 September 2014

What is most striking about the retrospective of Edwin Smith’s photographs at the Royal Institute of British Architects (until 6 December) is his ability to capture the human relationship to buildings. A woman's silhouette in a shadowy side street is dwarfed by York Minster; a man in a suit casts a short shadow before the long shadows of the palatial façade of the Royal Exchange; a cat lingers uncertainly in the gateway to Ampton Hall.

From The Blog
10 July 2014

It would be hard to draw a picture of one of Austen’s characters based on the books: the narrators offer little physical description at all (‘plain’, ‘tall’) and the other characters don’t go much further than ‘fair’ and ‘dark-eyed’ (how-much-a-year is far more significant). But Austen does tell us a lot about the way the valuation of appearance betrays prejudices. Bingley’s ardency is evident from his first sight of Jane – ‘Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld!’ – and Elizabeth is as firm in her loyalty: ‘You were about five times as pretty as every other woman in the room.' Darcy considers Elizabeth ‘barely tolerable’ to begin with, but by the end declares her ‘one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance’.

From The Blog
2 June 2014

At Southwold harbour the other weekend the fishermen were doing a busy trade, selling lobsters to visitors who had come for the sunshine and the sea, though the sea was still cold and grey, turning murky brown as the tide swelled with silt and pebbles. The crag that makes up much of the Suffolk coast is the softest and youngest rock in the UK, and especially vulnerable to erosion. Southwold is very nearly an island, cut off by the River Blyth to the south-west and Buss Creek to the north. Since the Environment Agency announced plans to stop maintaining the estuary in 2007, local groups have been repairing breaches, preserving the freshwater marshes and maintaining the 400-year-old clay walls along the Blyth (known as ‘slubbing the banks’).

From The Blog
31 October 2013

I wonder if the Bank of England knew what they were letting themselves in for when they agreed to put Jane Austen on the £10 note. Janeites have been arguing over the authenticity of portraits for decades. The most settled on is the watercolour sketch held by the National Portrait Gallery and attributed to Austen’s sister, Cassandra. It was offered to James Edward Austen-Leigh (their nephew) by one of their great-nieces for inclusion in his 1869 Memoir.

From The Blog
2 May 2013

Kurt Schwitters was 53 when he arrived in Britain in 1940. The Nazis had labeled him an ‘Entarteter Künstler’ (degenerate artist); in Britain he was an enemy alien, locked up in Hutchinson Internment Camp on the Isle of Man: brown walls, grey tiles, grey Irish Sea. The first room of Schwitters in Britain (at Tate Britain until 12 May) gives a glimpse of his life before exile. Schwitters hovered butterfly-like on the fringes of the major European isms of the 1920s: a bit of Dada here, a bit of De Stijl there. The geometry of Ja-was? Bild, with its strips of corrugated cardboard like sign posts in a blast of blue-green abstraction, makes dramatic use of a Suprematist grammar.

From The Blog
21 February 2013

Small pictures, especially works on paper, sit more comfortably in the intimate proportions of a house than in a lofty gallery hangar, and the exhibition of watercolours and etchings by Giorgio Morandi at the Estorick Collection (until 7 April) is a well-turned example of what can be done with such an arrangement: the pictures are allowed to speak for themselves.

From The Blog
21 September 2012

As the first signs of autumn began to appear last week I went horseriding with my sister in Trent Park, just north of London. It's mostly woodland, and for a lot of the time you can go without hearing or seeing another person, or car or any sign of modernity, even though it’s only a couple of miles from the M25. When you’re alone you can ride as fast as you like, which is to say as fast as you can, feeling the earth kicked up behind you, the forest a blur, the burn of little branches whipping you in the face. The horses we ride are only stable cobs, but the fantasy horse is always an Arabian.

From The Blog
3 April 2012

Born in 1759, Carl Wilhelm Kolbe worked as a teacher before the declining fortunes of his school prompted him to train as an artist. He went to the Berlin Academy of Art, a man in his thirties among boys of twelve. Even more unusually, Kolbe produced nothing but etchings, some of which are currently on display at the British Museum, along with other German Romantic prints and drawings from the collection of Charles Booth-Clibborn, the founder of the Paragon Press.

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