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Wednesday 12 June 2019

Girl or Young Woman With a Rose: A Nineteenth Century Painting from Finland

Click on Image to Magnify

I bought the painting recently, bidding online in a Finnish auction on the basis of how it looked on screen. Now it hangs to the side of the desk where I am typing this. When shipping costs were added, it still cost me under two hundred euros. Those who viewed it in the actual sale room would have seen that it is damaged - the line which runs horizontally across the painting starting from the girl’s elbow marks a repair.

On the back, a very recent label reads “Luultavasti Aino Aalto” - “Probably Aino Aalto”. That proves to be unhelpful. The most famous “Aino Aalto” was a Finnish architect and designer, born 1894, died 1949. Google not only knows all about her work and illustrates it profusely; it also reckons there is no other Aino Aalto worth knowing about. All I get from Google is the new knowledge that Aino is a first name for a female.

The label is ambiguous. It most likely assigns a probable painter but could assign a name to the sitter. From the style of the painting, the fairly crude wooden stretcher, the style of the gilt frame, the dress and hair of the sitter - well, I think this painting dates from before the advent of portrait photography, from the first half of the nineteenth century. 

I guess the age of the sitter at between thirteen and nineteen. She’s not displaying a ring but then it’s only her right hand that you can see. The rose is probably a conventional symbol - the bloom of youth, romance - but one should remember that portrait painters (and subsequently photographers) got sitters to hold things simply to stop them fidgeting with their hands. The painter has solved the problem of the other hand by simply chopping it off.

Aino is a Finnish name. There were women painters in nineteenth century Finland, so there is no obstacle to the painter being the Aino and a label on a painting for auction is more likely to attempt to name the painter than the sitter.

In the nineteenth century, someone who was Swedish-speaking was more likely to have been able to afford a portrait in oils. That I infer from my general knowledge, not from Google, though that probabilistic knowledge certainly does not exclude that the sitter was Finnish-speaking.  Likewise, from general knowledge and from the sitter’s hair, dress and facial features, I infer that this is not a girl from the Russian governing population - the Grand Duchy of Finland passed from Swedish to Russian control in 1809. Her religion will be Protestant.

To my eye, the portrait is not in any way cute. Though she has been made to hold a rose, the girl in the portrait looks seriously at the painter, with eyes which are unwavering. If she is nearer to thirteen than nineteen, she may just be uncertain about herself. Nearer to nineteen, then she is a determined young woman.

I can think of no way of finding her name, her date of birth, details of her life, the date of her death. It’s possible that no one anywhere now knows those details, or how to retrieve them. It’s also possible that she figures in some family genealogy, but that the link between the person in the genealogy and the person in the portrait has been lost. After all, this nice portrait ended up in a public auction. 

I do think it’s a portrait, not a genre painting for which some temporarily anonymous model has been paid to sit. The idea of the “genre” painting is very convenient for art museums; it saves them from a great deal of homework, and in this case would result in the title, Girl  With A Rose or Young Woman With A Rose, depending on how you resolve her age. 

And without a name for her, that generic title cannot be improved.

A revised version of this essay appears in my book  Between Remembering and Forgetting (degree zero 2020; hardback only £15) and the painting is reproduced on the cover.

Thursday 6 June 2019

Motorway Service Stations: A Model for Universities?

This post from 6 January 2013 had a large number of readers; I'm not sure why. Maybe visitors who were looking for information on Brighton's club scene.

This week, The Economist has a very good piece about UK motorway service stations (5th January 2013, "Serviceable", page 21). If you want to open one, government regulations require you to keep it open 24/7/365 (and 366 in Leap Years). This seems like commonsense: people are on the move 24/7/365 and if they are on a motorway journey, they will need to stop for petrol, food, drink and the loo - and the loos (says the government) must also be open 24/7/365 and  free of charge.

Of course, motorway service station workers don't work 24/7/365. Staff work rotas.

The other day, someone reminded me of a truth I used to know very well: at weekends, my local university campuses (there are two: Brighton, Sussex) are deserted and most of their services closed down. This ought to strike us as strange. Reading, writing, thinking, experimenting are 24/7/365 things. People's brains are on the move all the time. And since universities are supposed to be connected with - and supportive of  - brains on the move you would expect this to be reflected in their opening hours. Universities are places where the lights should burn long into the night and all through the weekend.

Instead, the lights are burning in Brighton & Hove, the large town (or small city) which neighbours the university campuses. The pubs, the clubs, the cafes, the restaurants, the shops - some are open almost 24/7/365 but especially at weekends when Brighton fills up with students and other visitors arriving (often in tens of thousands) to sample its weekend delights (basically music, alcohol, drugs and maybe some sex though probably the alcohol and drugs are incompatible with much of that).

The only people missing from the Brighton late night and weekend scene are the majority of University staff, teachers and administrators who are busy doing Middling England kind of things: decorating the house, going for walks, giving dinner parties.

Innocent enough but the overall effect is to routinise intellectual life into some nine to five Monday to Friday office schedule.

Students - whatever they may think they are doing - are already living the kind of On / Off life their Middling England parents live - there's just more Off to it.

Academics have settled for attending their committees and meeting their Research Output quotas rather than pursuing the life of the mind which was once (perhaps) the vocation associated with their salary.

The life of the mind can of course be a troubling thing. Even what's left of my mind can have me sitting here banging away at the keyboard from 8 34 to 9 05 on a Sunday morning - almost a definition of Off time. But then I was always a bit defiant.

But I have learnt to compromise; the computer will go to Off and I will  take a walk along the seafront.

Wednesday 5 June 2019

Walking in Port Meadow, Oxford, May 2019

Oxford is one of those places which has big open green spaces very close to the city centre. On a recent visit and taking advantage of a sunny morning, I started my day with a walk into Port Meadow, an extensive area of low-lying flood plain which has been common land for centuries. But such walks always cause me a bit of anxiety. I make them without any props and often find myself the only person out and about who hasn’t got the kind of excuse which a prop indicates; I am just a solitary walker, without even the cover which coupledom provides.

The dog-dependent are out at this time of day, their presence in the meadow justified by the dog. A notice at the entrance to the meadow tells me that to reduce the risk of dog faeces spreading parasitic infections to animals grazing in the meadow, those faeces must be gathered up and disposed of into a bin. In addition, a single person may not bring more than four dogs into the meadow, perhaps to discourage those who depend on dog walking for their livelihood and for whom the meadow would be a convenient, unpoliced shittery. A more prominent notice tells me that one of the horses which graze in the meadow has recently died in a savage dog attack and the Meadow custodians would like to know whose dog.

This makes me a bit anxious and I guess does the same for the joggers and runners who are out, mostly young women dressed in clothes which indicate seriousness of purpose and justify their presence in the open air on a sunny morning: I am here because I am keeping fit, though I rather anxiously hope that my Lycra legs do not attract the attention of a savage dog.

Then there are cyclists, most heading south towards the city centre and most, I guess, with the practical aim of getting to work or class. They look rather intense, as if they might be late for an important date. But the bicycle is the prop which legitimates their rapidly passing presence.

A few of the joggers and the cyclists greet me but, of course, there is no reason for them to stop and pass a time of day in which I would  tell them that I have just been watching a pair of young goldfinches, feeding on dandelion clocks.

There was a time when, in response to anxieties about walking alone, I used to carry a stick - an indication that I was a serious walker, up there with the  jogger or cyclist. But I could never bring myself to don the expensive garments which signify someone as a Rambler, garments made all the more signifying by their binary contrast with the Naked version. Eventually, and despite the fact that I was getting older, I gave up the stick and now present myself, albeit uncomfortably, as that species of solitary walker who pays some attention to what can be seen and what can be heard around them, but with no real excuse for being there in a meadow on a sunny morning.


Later, I walked down to the city centre, a world crowded with young people and, of course, seething with props: smartphones with their own human beings permanently attached. Where are the flâneurs and the flâneuses, I asked myself? Surely there must be other people nearby, strolling and trying to pay attention to the viewscape and the soundscape. But I don’t see many. 

As for the smartphones, their human dependents would be so full of the beauty of youth if they would but detach themselves, look up, look around, pay attention, stroll or strut their stuff.  This, after all, is Oxford and the young people I see clearly have the benefit of good diet, good dentistry, and effortless taste in the way they dress. They are quite unlike the young people I see each day in the decayed south coast resort where I live. But, fortunate or not, both rich and poor all now have in common that they are not looking at the world around them, or listening to it. Especially, it seems, when crossing a road.

But then I said to myself, In your day surely you must have had your own props; and then I thought, yes, the smartphone has replaced the cigarette. Back then, it was a cigarette which solved the problem of what to do with your hands, or at least, one hand. The cigarette - mine were always Turkish - gave you an excuse for your existence and a prop to navigate social life. If not a cigarette, then maybe a handbag or even just a rolled up newspaper  - the latter a common sight in the past.

Human beings are natural fidgets; so many of our problems stem from our inability to sit, stand or walk quietly, without a prop to soothe. In the days of portraits in oils and into the early days of photography it was a big problem, partly solved by equipping the sitter with a fan, a flower, a book, a riding crop.

I walk back to my guest house. A woman approaches, perhaps a grandmother, pushing a buggy and addressing soothing words to its occupant. She passes and I half turn to look at the baby: big-eyed, big-eyelashed, and wide-open mouthed; an old-fashioned pink plastic doll.


This piece is now included in my little book Sample Essays, available at