Today I went to the dentist, which means afterwards I get to buy books.
The moment I saw the spine of Kate Colquhoun’s A Thing in Disguise I started making that involuntary chittering noise cats make when they see a bird. Yes, I wanted it that much. I’ve borrowed it several times from the library and couldn’t wait for it to be mine. It’s a marvelous account of the life of Joseph Paxton who, among other things, designed the Crystal Palace. Though he did have help to build it, probably even magical help. (I see that skeptical eyebrow raise, and will soon post screeds of evidence and well-reasoned arguments. ahem).
Charles Dickens called Paxton ‘the busiest man in England’, and this book makes you believe it. Paxton was a fascinating character. He became head gardener at Chatsworth and such good friends with his employer, the Duke of Devonshire, that they often went on holiday together. Paxton was the father of several gardening magazines and several children (one of whom he famously floated on a lily leaf to prove an architectural point). He also designed buildings, despite having no architectural training, sat on various Boards, and generally did everything, usually better than everyone else. He was so well-known for his ingenuity that Victorians with apparently unsolvable problems (Oh, who should take Lady Drednaught into dinner if the Bishop can’t attend? Can I call on the Flightley’s, or must I wait for them to call on me?) would tell each other to ‘Ask Paxton’.
Then I saw Jeremy Paxman’s name on another book on the shelf and started making the creepy noise again. I loved The English. I had to have this.
Once I’d got my hands on the prize I realized it was even better than I’d thought. It’s not just Paxman on The Victorians, no. It’s Britain through the paintings of the age. Now this is exciting for two reasons. One is that I’ve loved art history ever since Ms Swain walked into the classroom in 1987 with her Tintin haircut, her massive Mondrian earrings and her slides of Raphael and Giotto. And the second reason is that one of the main characters in my (as yet unpublished) m/m romance novel is on the fringes of the Victorian art world, so he’s probably been out on the lash with at least some of these artists. The less respectable ones, that is.
I looked inside to find The Victorians well-supplied with colour plates. And not only were there all the names you’d expect: Millais, Turner, Frith, Landseer and so on – but there were also two works by the wonderfully unsettling Richard Dadd. I don’t know much about Dadd – except that he murdered his father, painted very uncanny fairies and ended his days in an insane asylum. Dadd’s an artist I want to learn more about. His paintings tend towards extreme detail. One can easily imagine that he really had seen fairies, and that they were terrifyingly human-like, without being human at all *shudder*.
I paid, and made off, cackling, into the gloaming.
And luckily I have to go back to the dentist soon (now there’s something you don’t say every day) so I will have more treasures to share with you soon.