Everyone has been raving about the huge Vogue100 exhibition – a pictorial history of Vogue magazine since its birth in 1916. Several of my friends have been twice.
Yes, there are loads of fantastic portraits. though I liked best the long tables of black and white photographs. I particularly liked the hand-drawn and painted covers of the early years.
But the National Portrait Gallery curators elected to do something I really hate – group the captions to one side of the exhibits so that at times it was hard to tell which description went with which photo. The detailed descriptions were in a small thin font, difficult to read especially in the rooms where the light had been dimmed. My view is that the title of any artefact is important, especially if given by the author of the piece, and should be easy to find and read, even if the artist has elected to call the work Untitled .
A quotation from the Vogue of 1938 Primer of Art made my hackles rise:
‘A lady of quality should be able to walk into any drawing room, to look at the picture over the mantelpiece and to exclaim: “Oh what a charming Picasso of the early Blue Period”, or “I like your new Follower of Masaccio (circa 1420) immensely.” If she guesses right she is a gentleman and a scholar.”
I loved the Russia and the Arts exhibition – and not only because the titles were underneath each portrait!! Included were portraits of some of my best-loved Russian authors whose books I’d first pored over in my teenage years – Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – as well as musicians like Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, painters (mainly unfamiliar to me) and patrons – from the years 1867-1914.
My mother and grandmother were Russian so there was probably a bond there.
Memoir extract from The Girl with a Threepenny Birth Certificate
My grandmother was a tall, commanding woman with dark hair piled on top of her head. As a deeply orthodox Jewish woman it would have been a sheitel, a wig. I always went to bed before she did and I never saw her without it. I loved her and looked forward to curling up against her warm back in the big double bed we shared.She was kind to us but very tough. She’d had to be. In 1903, together with my ten-year-old mother, she fled the small town of Mogilev and the widespread pogroms in Belarus, one of the areas forming part of the Pale of Settlement. Established by Czar Catherine the Great in 1791, the Pale was the only area in Russia where Jews could live, unless they had some special employment, like the jeweller to the Crown. The Pale included present-day Poland, Latvia, Moldova and Ukraine, as well as Belarus, but it formed only a small part of Imperial Russia.
My grandmother had few happy memories of Mogilev. After her mother died giving birth to her, she’d had a miserable childhood as the unwanted stepdaughter of her father’s second wife. She fell in love and married my grandfather when she was seventeen, but her happiness was short-lived. My grandfather died of pneumonia when her baby daughter, my mother, had just turned two.
After she was widowed, my grandmother made a poor living taking in lodgers, who slept on shelves around the central stove, and ate at the long wooden table her husband had made for her as a wedding present. A careless shard of glass from the windows of the synagogue, shattered when the Cossacks rode through the town pillaging and burning, pierced my grandmother’s right eye not long after she got married. It left her with an unsightly white scar. She was virtually blind in that eye.
She scraped together enough money to book a passage for herself and my mother on a ship bound for America. Their miserable voyage in the filthy, crowded steerage section was interrupted by a stop in the Port of London but, instead of continuing the journey to America they had paid for, they were forced off the ship by jeering Russian seamen. It was a common practice – to sell tickets to the USA which only took the emigrants as far as England.
They wandered the streets of East London, sleeping in doorways, until an elderly Jew took pity on them and offered them shelter in his basement in Old Castle Street. They shared it with his family of six.
The Jewish Board of Guardians gave my grandmother the money to buy a willow basket and she got a pitch in Petticoat Lane Market on the corner of Wentworth Street and Goulston Street. Summer and winter she left home at four in the morning to get her bagels from the baker and was at her pitch every weekday. On a good day she sold out by late afternoon, but when the weather was bad she’d have to trudge home with some bagels unsold. She would pick up barely damaged fruit and vegetables from the market refuse and with her left‑over bagels, that would be their food until she’d sold enough to pay the baker what she owed.