Saturday 28 November 2015
Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.


A writer, blogger, and historian, born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, now based in London. read more
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Letter to the Editor

SIPPING a postprandial Coke last week while flipping through the Irish Times, my wandering eye was drawn towards that newspaper’s report on the Madrid congress of the European People’s Party, the grouping of Christian-democratic and centre-right political parties across the European continent (Madrid congress provides forum for delegates from EU centre-right parties, Suzanne Lynch, Irish Times, 22 October 2015). The correspondent first elucidates some of the purpose of these pan-European gatherings before going on to summarise a number of the issues raised. She ends, however, on a bit of a downer by describing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s “lurch to the far right”, evidenced by his “clampdown on media and internet freedoms, apparent support for the death penalty and hardline approach to refugees”.

This breezy litany of crimes is little more than shoddy journalism. The alleged “clampdown” refers to proposed internet legislation which has been withdrawn while other media laws requiring balance reflect the U.S. broadcasting rules rescinded under Ronald Reagan. The “apparent support” for capital punishment is another damp squib: Orbán called for it to be debated as intellectual speculation — a canny “dog-whistle” political move to gain votes without requiring any legislative action or serious challenge to the E.U. ban on the death penalty. (It was abolished in Hungary at the fall of communism and there are absolutely positively no government plans to bring it back.)

The refugees allegation was the most interesting, however. As it happened, I had attended a small meeting of British MPs and Hungarian foreign ministry officials the day before Ms Lynch’s report was printed. The Welsh MP David Davies gave his first-hand account of visiting the refugee camps near the Hungarian-Serb border and reported that refugees were being well-looked-after, with the quality of the facilities on the whole at least as good as when he was in the British Army, often better. An advisor from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry briefed us on the general situation, which has calmed down immensely since the Serb border has been more or less closed. He noted that broadcast media across the continent showed footage of Budapest police’s treatment of migrants gathered at the railway station without pointing out that the police were responding to violent attacks from a small minority of migrants.

Proprotionate self-defence for officers of the law is the norm across Europe, but this has mattered little when it comes to depictions of Hungary: the bien-pensant official groupthink is that anything Hungary does is wrong, so long as Fidesz is in power. Luckily some voices of dissent have emerged. The novelist Tibor Fischer — no conservative — described in The Guardian the media treatment of Hungary as “hysterical” and “ignorant nonsense”.

Anyhow, I felt obliged to send off my “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” to the Irish Times and it’s very good of their letters staff to print a diverging (if abridged) opinion. The last letter to any editor I succeeded in having printed was in the Times Literary Supplement in 2008 about P.G. Wodehouse’s career in banking at H.S.B.C. Who knows what the next shall bring…

October 27, 2015 11:42 pm | Link | 4 Comments »

Open-minded Stellenbosch

Paul Moorcraft is a Cardiff-born journalist and academic who spent many years in southern Africa, lecturing, researching, and working. I stumbled across this passage about Stellenbosch from his 2011 book Inside the Danger Zones: Travels to Arresting Places and found it interesting (though not surprising):

I found many of my all-white students at the University of Cape Town tediously dogmatic in their supposed progressiveness. I also lectured at the Afrikaans-language university of ‘Maties’ at Stellenbosch, established in 1918 [sic, f. 1866; accorded university status in 1918] as the Afrikaner Oxbridge, where I found the students much more open-minded. Simon van der Stel, a stiff Dutch bureaucrat, founded a frontier town on the banks of the Eerste River in 1679. Van der Stel loved oaks, and the graceful boulevards he planted still adorned picturesque Stellenbosch. I spent as much time as possible in the area because of the architecture. The Cape Dutch style contains elements from Dutch architecture but is also influenced by colonial Indonesian traditions and the local environment. The most characteristic feature is the graceful gabled section built around the front door, which is flanked by symmetrical wings, thatched and whitewashed, extending on either side.

I was supposed to be using my visiting lectureship to finish my doctoral research, so I became friendly with Retha, a librarian at Maties. She was a fund of knowledge on Afrikaner culture and offered herself as an intellectual guide. My scholarly investigations soon degenerated into a three-month tour of the local wine farms, for which I am eternally grateful. We drove through the old, beautiful vineyards of the valleys around Paarl, Franschoek, and Tulbagh; then returned to eat in splendid eighteenth-century farmhouses converted to hotels.

October 14, 2015 11:03 am | Link | 2 Comments »

The End of Liberalism

Viktor Orban on the end of the liberal age and the threat to Europe

In a speech to supporters at the Fidesz party’s fourteenth annual Kötcse picnic, the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has claimed that the refugee crisis is a portent of the end of “the era of liberal babble”. The current “identity crisis” of liberalism, Orbán argued, presented both “huge risk” and “a new opportunity” to return to Christian and communal identities.

Mr Orbán said that the dominant liberal ideology had weakened Europe while preserving its wealth. “The most dangerous combination known in history is to be both rich and weak,” he argued. “It is only a matter of time before someone comes along, notices your weakness, and takes what you have.”

“The liberal philosophy is a result of a Europe which is weak and which also wants to protect its wealth; but if Europe is weak, it cannot protect this wealth.”

Mr Orbán also attacked the liberal imperialism of military intervention, asserting it has been based on fundamental hypocrisy and simplistic Manichean thinking: (more…)

September 22, 2015 5:27 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

Putin: ‘I’d really like to see Europe show some real independence and sovereignty’

‘Europe is facing a specific problem: an influx of immigrants’ the Russian president asserts in an interview for Swiss television

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, granted a television interview to Darius Rochebin of Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS) in St Petersburg on 25 July of this year.

Here are a few excerpts from the interview, dealing with (among other issues) the balance of power, independence and sovereignty in Europe, and relations with the United States.

Darius Rochebin: Good evening, Mr President. Thank you very much for making the time for this interview.

Vladimir Putin: Bonsoir.

Darius Rochebin: Western nations’ opinions about you are divided. As you know, some are delighted by you while others condemn you. When you once again spoke of your nuclear arsenal, many began to talk about the threat from your side.

Vladimir Putin: This is done by dishonest and inattentive people. The process of starting a new arms race began from the moment of the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the ballistic missile defence treaty. Because this agreement was a cornerstone for the entire international security system. And when the United States withdrew from it and began to create a missile defence system as part of its global strategic weapons system, we immediately said: we will be obliged to take reciprocal steps to maintain a strategic balance of power.

I want to say something very important: we are doing this for ourselves, to ensure the security of the Russian Federation, but we are also doing it for the rest of the world, because this strategic stability ensures the balance of power.

Darius Rochebin: We are currently in St Petersburg, a city that suffered a great deal in the war. As far as I understand, your grandfather and grandmother lived through…

Vladimir Putin: My mother and father. My brother, whom I never met, died here during the seige.

Darius Rochebin: Is another war possible in Europe today?

Vladimir Putin: I hope not. But I would really like to see Europe demonstrate some real independence and sovereignty and be capable of defending its national interests, the interests of its people and its nations. […]

Darius Rochebin: You said that you would like Europe to be more independent. For example, as far as France is concerned, during de Gaulle and Mitterrand’s times. How do you currently feel about what is happening there?

Vladimir Putin: […] Participation in any military and political organisation or bloc is associated with the voluntary renunciation of a certain share of one’s sovereignty.

I think that at the time, France withdrew from NATO to preserve its sovereignty more than it is possible within the framework of a military bloc. It is not our business to analyse European nations’ foreign policy. But I think you’ll agree that if we need to discuss intra-European affairs with European partners in Washington, it is not very interesting.

Darius Rochebin: Mr President, right now, we are observing a rather ironic turn in history. Currently, we are seeing you garner more support among right-wing and even far-right parties in European nations than left-wing parties; for example, Marine Le Pen in France and the UDC in Switzerland. What do you think about this?

Vladimir Putin: I think that this is not so much support for me as the realisation of national interests as the political parties see them.

There are certain tectonic changes underway throughout the world and in Europe within the public consciousness, which are aimed at defending national interests. You must understand that right now, Europe is facing a specific problem, an influx of immigrants. And did Europe make the decision that ultimately led to this situation? We need to be sincere and honest: these decisions were made across the ocean, but Europe must deal with the problem.

Darius Rochebin: You mean the United States.

Vladimir Putin: Of course. This is just one example, but there are many. But this does not mean – and I already said this – that we should somehow demonise US policy; that is not my goal. They are conducting their policy as they see necessary in their interests.

We must strive to find a balance of interests; we need to invigorate our work, give new momentum to the work by the UN Security Council. The US is certainly a great power and the American people created this nation over several centuries, it is simply an amazing result. But that does not mean that today’s US authorities have the right to travel throughout the world and grab anyone to drag back to their prison or act from a position of “anyone who is not with us is against us.”

We need to be patient and work with our American colleagues to find solutions, the way we have in some areas of our cooperation, such as with the Iranian nuclear issue.


Darius Rochebin: The last question, Mr President. The last question I would like to ask. In Europe you are now being portrayed as the new Stalin, some people present you as an imperialist. Some love you, of course, and appreciate you, but others present you in this particular way. There are even those who say that after all these years that you have been in power, you have gone mad. What would you respond to these people?

Vladimir Putin: After our interview, do you think I am mad?

Darius Rochebin: You are smiling, despite all these preconceptions.

Vladimir Putin: This is part of political struggle; it has been part of my life for quite a number of years. I try not to pay too much attention to it. I simply do what I think is necessary in the interests of my country and my people.

It is not in Russia’s interests to be in confrontation with other countries, but sometimes we are forced to protect our interests, and we will undoubtedly continue to do so. However, we will seek solution not in confrontation, particularly military confrontation, but in finding compromise and mutually acceptable solutions.

With your help I would like to address not those who criticise me, but those who support me. I would like to thank them for their support and tell them that we will continue moving ahead together. Above all, I am referring not to those who portray me [as Stalin], but to those who sympathise with what we are doing and agree with it deep inside.

Merci beaucoup.

September 8, 2015 9:00 am | Link | 1 Comment »

Chartres 2015

Chartres is filed in my mind as the cathedral of my childhood. I must’ve been around 4 or 5 when I first walked amidst this medieval vision of stone and stained glass — some years before I ever visited the cathedral of New York where I was born. Cathedrals offer a prodigious mental stomping ground for the imagination of a young boy, and David Macaulay’s pen-and-ink book Cathedral (winner of the 1975 Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis — take note!) I read and re-read over and over again as a child.

The marvel of this great church is that, while most medieval cathedrals took centuries to build, Chartres was constructed in an astonishing fifty-four years between 1194 and 1250, lending it a unity as an architectural composition that puts its rivals to shame. Chartres was made a diocese as early as the third century and tradition even upholds that from around the year 50 B.C., local Druids who had heard the prophecies of Isaiah here enshrined a statue of the ‘Virgo Paritura’, the Virgin-who-will-give-birth.

Having such a long history, Chartres’ fortunes have waxed and waned. In medieval times it was one of the most popular pilgrimage shrines in all of Europe, and in the 11th and 12th century its cathedral school far outshone England’s provincial attempt at a university at Oxford. But France’s civil wars and then revolution put an end to the town’s days as a destination for pilgrims until the poet Charles Péguy revived them himself in the years leading up to the First World War.

For the past thirty-three years, the largest pilgrimage to Chartres has been undertaken over Pentecost weekend, a bank holiday in France which happily coincided with our second May bank holiday in Great Britain this year. On this trek, over 11,000 pilgrims walk all the way from Notre Dame de Paris to Notre Dame de Chartres. Our chapter of about twenty pilgrims marched under the banner of Notre Dame de Philerme, patroness of the Order of Malta — mostly French and British but with a few participants from other countries as well. (more…)

July 31, 2015 2:00 pm | Link | 4 Comments »

A Horror in the Hague

The old and new buildings of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts

SINCE 1682, the Hague has been home to the oldest art school in the Netherlands, the Koninklijke Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten or Royal Academy of Fine Arts. The school has its origins in the civic corporations of the late medieval period. The Guild of Saint Luke incorporated all the artists of the Hague, and later from this group emerged a self-selecting gang of painters and sculptors who founded themselves as the Pictura Brotherhood. This fraternity in turn founded an academy of art which on its 275th anniversary was granted the royal patronage and name.

Having had previous quarters in the Korenbeurs and the Boterwaag, the Academy engaged the architect Zeger Reyers (or Reijers) to design its own building in the Prinsessegracht in 1839 (above, top). This neo-classical temple to the arts was very much in keeping with the French academic tradition which the school practised at the time, but in later years this fashion faded. Just before the Second World War, the barbarians sacked the temple and erected in its place a Bauhaus-style box (below).

Like all too many changes, it was not an improvement. (more…)

April 29, 2015 3:11 pm | Link | 2 Comments »


United Nations Headquarters, New York

AMONG THE LEGACIES of my New York childhood is a sentimental fondness for the United Nations, and especially for the stylish swank of its headquarters at Turtle Bay in Manhattan. The name of the small neighbourhood originates (scholars tell us) not from the turtles which were once abundant upon the shores of the island and its environs but rather from a small inlet shaped, in the eyes of the old New Netherlanders, like a particular type of bent or curved blade called a deutal knife in Dutch. The woods and meadows surrounding Deutal Bay were easily rechristened as Turtle Bay once the English established their ascendancy and New Amsterdam became New York.

Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the tiny port founded at the bottom tip of Manhattan grew further and further up the island, swallowing up the old colonial villages like Greenwich, Bloemendal, and Haarlem, or farms like Turtle Bay, Inclenberg, and Kip’s Bay, until as today there is just one giant urban mass stretching from the Battery at the bottom tip of the island all the way to Spuyten Duyvil at the top.

While New Yorkers like to think that there is no possible competitor to the city’s status as capital of the world, there was of course a great debate over where the United Nations should be based. Geneva was an obvious candidate, as the beautiful art-deco Palais des Nations provided a ready-made home for an international organisation. The fathers of the UN, however, did not want to associate themselves so closely with the failure of the old League of Nations the Palais was built for, and so the Geneva option was nixed.

Given the shifting balance of world power, it was thought a New World site might be a wiser choice than a European location. Quebec, as I have written previously, was an obvious possibility as the city is a beautiful melange of Old World and New, and for Europeans was easily accessible by passenger liner. Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific states, however, were in favour of San Francisco for geographic reasons to their obvious benefit, and cited the Californian city’s hosting the 1945 Conference on International Organisation which brought forth the UN Charter.

Fears that the United States would refuse to participate fully in the UN (as with the League of Nations of old) almost guaranteed that the US permanently hosting the world body in order to solidify American resolve in the UN’s favour, but the squabble over precisely where dragged on. The Rockefeller family intervened by offering to the fledgling United Nations Organisation, at no cost whatsoever, a large riparian site at Turtle Bay on the banks of the East River, largely consisting of slaughterhouses at the time. Settled then, but what would the complex look like? (more…)

April 20, 2015 2:05 pm | Link | 4 Comments »

Faith, Freedom, and Respect

Religion grows in the very depths of our being. Mocking it, ridiculing it, can be especially hurtful.


Unanimous France has marched on January 11 in the name of Charlie to defend freedom of expression. Is it useful to say at the start that, at this moment of national unity, I agree with the condemnation of these heinous acts of terrorism and that I welcome hearing some courageous voices dare to finally name the danger — radical Islamism? But I am surprised and worried to see a France that, with the resultant “diversity” noticeable in its absence, is becoming a supporter of a newspaper that it never bothered to read. The defence of freedom of expression seems to have created an epidemic of blindness with respect to the problems, not of the freedom to express ideas, but of the manner in which that freedom is used.

It is clear that freedom of expression is regulated in France, since some words (such as those inciting racial hatred) are legitimately subject to prosecution, while there are no laws against blasphemy. But the question posed by the humour of Charlie Hebdo, that everyone will enjoy according to their own standards, seems to be beyond the law. If liberty is a core value of our society, conquered after many struggles, is it assigned an absolute value that is greater than all the others? Doesn’t the motto of our republic put it at the same level of equality and fraternity? In the name of fraternity, we can not take seriously a value that is unlikely to be framed in legal texts, as it is impossible to codify, and yet is inherent in the dignity of man and entered in the heart of everyone: that of respect for others. This is precisely what makes a large contribution to the charm of life: giving up one’s seat on the bus to let an elderly person sit; politely asking your neighbour to lower the volume of his music instead of yelling in the stairway “Turn it down!” — none of this is prescribed by law, but it makes life better.

Now, if there is a value to be respected in others, it is his religion. (more…)

March 16, 2015 4:40 pm | Link | No Comments »

Kerkplein, Pretoria

Gauteng, the province which forms the highly urbanised heart of the old Transvaal, is not my area of specialty in South Africa, enamoured as I am of the Western Cape. Johannesburg, for all its financial prowess, is one of those towns that went from a collection of tents to a major city almost overnight with the Witwatersrand gold boom.

Pretoria, on the other hand — Pretoria Philadelphia to give its original name — exudes a more detached respectability perhaps enlivened by the ceremony of its century-long status as the executive capital of a unified South Africa. And sitting at the heart of the city of jacarandas is Kerkplein — Church Square.


January 19, 2015 10:58 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

Shedding light on the Cape Baroque

Nuwe lig op die Kaapse barok deur Dr Hans Fransen

A NEW BOOK BY Dr Hans Fransen, the leading authority on Cape Dutch architecture, intends to shed new light on the Cape Baroque style through an examination of the work of the sculptor Anton Anreith. Cape Baroque and the contribution of Anton Anreith offers us the hefty subtitle of ‘A stylistic survey of architectural decoration and the applied arts at the Cape of Good Hope 1652-1800’, covering the period of the Dutch East India Company’s rule at the Cape.

The author investigates (says the publisher’s note) whether, and to what extent, the surprisingly rich body of Cape material culture can be seen as part and parcel of the international Baroque: that ebullient style of painting, architecture, and design that swept across Europe and some of its spheres of influence. After a highly interesting account of the origins of the Baroque in Italy and of its development in other parts of the world, the author concludes that ‘Cape Baroque’ does indeed form part of this. But he also points out that it has a very distinctive character of its own.

The book of 180 pages contains over 200 illustrations, mostly from the author himself, whose other works include The Old Towns and Villages of the Cape, The Old Buildings of the Cape, Drie Eeue Kuns in Suid-Afrika, and the introduction to A Cape Camera, the book illustrating the photography of early Cape photographer Arthur Elliott.

The sculptor Anreith, born in Germany at Riegel between the Rhine and the foothills of the Black Forest, was the finest and most florid artist of the Baroque in the Cape of Good Hope. His exceptional work on the pulpit of the Lutheran Church in Cape Town provoked the envy of the more prominent Dutch Reformed congregation, who quickly commissioned Anreith to carve an even more ornate pulpit for the Groote Kerk.

Cape Baroque and the contribution of Anton Anreith: a stylistic survey of architectural decoration and the applied arts at the Cape of Good Hope 1652-1800
by Dr Hans Fransen, 160 pages, R250
Kaapse barok en die bydrae van Anton Anreith: ’n stilistiese oorsig van argitektoniese versiering en toegepaste kuns op die Kaap die Goeie Hoop 1652-1800
deur Dr Hans Fransen, 160 bladsye, R250
January 19, 2015 10:56 pm | Link | No Comments »

Papal Mace for St Andrews

Archbishop Presents New Mace to Scotland’s Oldest University Amidst 600th Anniversary

Above: The 600th Anniversary Mace.

Below: The University’s three medieval maces:
St Salvator’s College, 1461; Faculty of Canon Law, circa 1450; Faculty of Arts, 1416.

ST ANDREWS University already boasts the world’s finest collection of medieval maces, but a new ceremonial mace was added to the university’s hoard recently. In honour of the University’s six-hundredth anniversary, the Most Rev Leo Cushley, Archbishop of St Andrews & Edinburgh, has presented the institution with a new ceremonial mace on behalf of the Catholic Church.

“This completes a triple recognition of the University St Andrews,” said Dr John Haldane, the University’s professor of philosophy.

“During his visit to Scotland at the outset of this decade, Pope Benedict referred to the university beginning to mark the 600th anniversary of its foundation, then last year Pope Francis sent a message of congratulation, and now his office has granted permission for the inclusion of his coat of arms on the head of a mace commissioned to mark the completion of several centuries and the beginning of who knows how many more.”

The silver mace with gold rose details was crafted by Hamilton & Inches of Edinburgh, who also constructed the mace of the Faculty of Medicine at St Andrews over a half-century ago. Their master silversmith Jon Hunt designed the mace, in consultation with Prof Haldane.

The mace’s head is reminiscent of Brunelleschi’s dome of Florence Cathedral, recalling St Andrews’s links with the Continent which were foremost in the University’s first century and a half while it was a Catholic institution. Atop the head a saltire design is incorporated, referencing the apostle who gave his name to both the Royal Burgh and the University as well as the country who’s first university St Andrews is.

Heraldic shields display the arms of the University and of Pope Francis who invoked “upon all the staff and students of the University, past and present, the abundant blessings of Almighty God, as a pledge of heavenly peace and joy”. (more…)

December 4, 2014 9:30 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

Change in the air at the Catholic Herald

Title will cease to operate as a newspaper and relaunch in magazine format

Britain’s leading Catholic publication, the Catholic Herald, will be relaunching as a magazine before the end of this year. Invites have already gone out to an event celebrating the change to be held in early December.

The relaunch might be interpreted as a move against the Tablet, which styles itself “the international Catholic weekly” and has been nicknamed “The Bitter Pill” by English Catholics for its widely perceived lack of faithfulness to Catholic teaching. The Tablet is associated with the country’s old liberal Catholic elite, counting among its trustees such figures as Chris Patten and Sir Gus O’Donnell. A Herald reader, meanwhile, is more likely to be young, intellectual, and strongly influenced by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

When told of the news, one young churchman welcomed the change as a good move for the generally orthodox Herald against its looser rival. (more…)

October 23, 2014 11:36 am | Link | 5 Comments »

New Yorkers: See New York!

Old-School Ads Employed for City’s Internal Tourism Campaign

NYC & Company, the official tourism and marketing board of New York City, has cottoned on to the fact that in such a vast metropolis many parts of the city are virtually unknown to the natives of whichever particular borough.

They recently launched the ‘See Your City’ campaign encouraging New Yorkers to visit places perhaps less familiar to them within their own city. Part of the campaign involves the above series of posters for display in bus shelters.

The style evokes old-school travel posters of the 1920s & 30s, and NYC&Co commissioned one for each of the five boroughs.

Elsewhere: Adweek | New York Times | Untapped Cities | NYCgo

October 16, 2014 8:28 pm | Link | No Comments »

Russia’s Classical Future

Design chosen for St Petersburg’s new judicial quarter

While a vast and multifacted state, the Soviet Union was nonetheless one in which power was highly centralised, not just within one city — Moscow — but even within one complex of buildings, the Kremlin. For the past fourteen years, however, a St Petersburg boy — Vladimir Putin — has been the man at the helm of the ship of state, and while Moscow is still the top dog St Petersburg is increasingly stealing the limelight. The number of commercial bodies (several subsidiaries of Gazprom, for example) moving from Moscow to St Petersburg is growing, and even a few government departments and other entities have moved back to the old imperial capital.

Among these is the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, which transferred to the old Senate and Synod buildings in St Petersburg in 2008. The Supreme Court and Higher Arbitration Courts have yet to make the move, however, and a scheme by architect Maxim Atayants has been chosen as the winner of the design competition for the new judicial quarter on the banks of the Neva. (more…)

September 30, 2014 12:24 pm | Link | 11 Comments »

Evolution of a Napoleonic Parliament

The Salle des états in the Palais du Louvre

Among the numerous rituals of the ordinary visitor’s pilgrimage to Paris — trip up the Eiffel Tower, lunch at a tourist-trap café — braving the teeming hordes in the Louvre to view da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ ranks near the top. What very few of the camera-toting hordes realise is that they are shuffling through the room that once housed France’s parliament. The history of the Palais du Louvre is long, exceptional, and varied.

Originally built as a stern castle in the 1190s, the Louvre’s secure reputation led Louis IX to house the royal treasury there from the mid-thirteenth century. Charles V enlarged it in the fifteenth century to become a royal residence, while François Ier brought the grandeur of the Renaissance to the Louvre — as well as acquiring ‘La Gioconda’. In 1793, amidst the revolutionary tumult, part of the palace was opened to the public as the Musée du Louvre, but the Louvre has always housed a variety of institutions — the Ministry of Finance didn’t move out until 1983.

Napoleon III took as his official residence the Tuileries Palace which the Louvre was slowly enlarged towards over the centuries to incorporate. The Emperor needed a parliament chamber close at hand so he could easily address joint sittings of the Senate and the Corps législatif (as the lower house was called during the Second Empire) which opened the parliamentary year. By doing so at his residence, the Bonaparte emperor was following the example left by his kingly Bourbon predecessor Louis XVIII. (more…)

March 4, 2014 9:05 am | Link | 4 Comments »

Les jours heureux du Liban

Being an omnivore of nations I’m not short of favourite countries, but the Lebanon is towards the top of my list. I’ve spent some weeks there each summer for the past few years and we’re hoping to return this July (God willing). Friday night B. invited a few of us round for an impromptu supper and in the kitchen I happened to mention that I had met his ambassador the day before — the Lebanese ambassador.

This provoked a lament on B’s part as he relayed the history of his family’s service in the diplomatic corps and of Lebanon in the old days: black-tie dinners, summer in the mountains, the casinos and the glamour of the Beirut he was born too late to experience.

It’s become a cliché for foreigners to cite Beirut’s former glory as ‘the Paris of the Orient’ and Lebanon ‘the Switzerland of the Middle East’. Civil war wreaked its devastation on the country but its revival in more recent years has still been remarkable. Everything, of course, is exceptionally tenuous, but despite the clouds of uncertainty there remains a lot for which to be grateful.

We both wished, however, that today’s ordinary culture in Lebanon was a bit more informed by the style of the past. While old buildings are often restored, far too many of the new buildings are horrendously bland or offensively modern. Perhaps most unfortunately, a large proportion of Lebanon’s women — already endowed with a natural beauty unparalleled in the Middle East — are too mimicking of American styles: nosejobs and dyed blonde hair.

For my part, however, the conversation provoked a little dip into the photographic archives, seeking out some images of Lebanon in its halcyon days. (more…)

January 27, 2014 1:20 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

The Crowned Banner

The Emblem of the Scottish Parliament

Legislatures often have their own symbols. Often these are appropriated or stylised versions of national emblems. Stormont uses a flax plant. Some time ago Westminster adopted the Tudor portcullis which now represents the Parliament of the United Kingdom — in green for the Commons or in red for the Lords.

In Scotland, however, the unicameral parliament has adopted a crowned banner as its distinctive insignia. (For previous posts on prominent emblems of modern Scottish design, see the Clootie Dumpling and the Daisy Wheel). The crown expresses authority — ultimately the sovereign power of the monarchy — while the corded banner hanging from a pommelled pole displays the Saltire, Scotland’s national flag. While early versions of the emblem were in blue, it is now standard that the symbol be depicted in purple, long a colour associated with Scotland through the national florae of heather and thistle. (more…)

January 27, 2014 1:00 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

End of the Line for Rizzoli Bookshop

Another New York bookshop bites the dust

In New York, good things are only allowed to last a little while: eventually they must all be destroyed. The latest to add to the pile is the Rizzolli bookshop on West 57th Street, which has received notice that the landlords intend to demolish the 109-year-old structure in which the bookshop is housed.

Rizzoli, publishers of some of the finest and most luxuriously printed books on the market, have not yet said whether they will be opening shop elsewhere.

If so, it would be the second move for the shop, which opened in 1967 at 714 Fifth Avenue (below), just around the corner. A developer tried to tear that building down as well, but preservationists managed to have the façade, with its lalique glass, incorporated into the new tower. It’s now home to Henri Bendel.

Other New York bookshops to close in recent years include the Librairie française, Coliseum Books, Gotham Book Mart, Urban Center Books, and further back more venerable institutions like Scribner’s and Brentano’s.

Top three photos: Mais Uma Pagina

January 15, 2014 7:00 pm | Link | 7 Comments »

A Bunny Rampant

The carto-heraldic creativity of MacDonald Gill

If anything, I am a lover of maps, and as a cartophile it’s a fine thing that I spend half my life in South Kensington. Here you will find two of the best antiquarian map merchants around: the Map House on Beauchamp Place and Robert Frew across from the Oratory and right next door to Orsini. Milling about in front of church after mass today I received a tip-off from a friend suggesting I have a look at the window of Robert Frew, as there was a London Underground map with coats of arms of mostly abolished boroughs.

“Sounds like the sort of thing MacDonald Gill would do,” I said, and sure enough upon investigating earlier tonight it is the work of that inventive designer (and brother of Eric Gill).

The most splendid and ridiculous aspect is that in the central place among the municipal heraldry was a putative coat of arms MacDonald Gill thought up for the Underground: a rabbit rampant. Indeed, given the twin characteristics of being speedy and digging the earth, the rabbit is a perfect animal avatar for the London Underground to adopt. Don’t go looking for this design anywhere in the rolls of Garter King of Arms, though: it’s merely the invention of the creative mind of master map-maker MacDonald Gill.

January 5, 2014 11:20 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Two Flags Based on the French Tricolour

The French tricolour is one of the most influential flags in history, inspiring most prominently perhaps the Italian and Irish flags, but also dozens other, including the nationalist triband flags (like those of Germany, Russia, etc.). Indeed, the national flags of nearly sixty UN member states are based on these vertical or horizontal stripe combinations.

While long identified with revolution, republicanism, and nationalism, the French flag originally represented a combination of the blue and red of Paris — the colours of Saint Martin and Saint Denis — with the white of the French monarchy. Two (non-national) flags based directly on the French tricolour are those of the Acadians in North America and of Franschhoek in South Africa. (more…)

December 27, 2013 4:24 pm | Link | No Comments »
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