My mother

Scan 14 dThe funeral for my mother was a week ago. She would have loved it, I think… so many friends, the fact that my father was there, the flowers, the service written specially for her. She’d have put the pictures and the order of service on her new iPad and shown everyone with pride. My mother was an extraordinary person: she explored ideas, she made — and kept — so many friends of all ages, she cared for my father with so much love, she could still do headstands even just before that catastrophic stroke, she was a brilliant mother, she was wise and funny and she made me be a better person. Each morning I wake up and remember again. Here is her eulogy.

On Boxing Day 2004 our mother and father were in Sri Lanka. They had – though we didn’t know this until later – arranged to go on a little boat to a small temple island with friends, Alison, Alasdair and Cordelia, who was then eight. That morning my mother had gone for a walk on the beach and met with the wife of the hotel manager, with whom she had a wonderful discussion about… I don’t know… everyone here knows my mother’s astonishing capacity for making instant friendships and having wide ranging conversations about all sorts of exciting things. Continue reading →

#TheTapestry forerunner of #TheDress

The DressThe furore around whether this dress, aka #TheDress is blue and black or white and gold (I say it’s white and gold. Obviously!) and the delicious vox pop videos the BBC and others are making of when they ask people about it (“you’re winding me up!??? Are you turning my spanner???”) makes me wonder what would have happened if there had been twitter and video in 1820s Paris.

That year the Gobelins Royal tapestry workshop in Paris had a problem. They were using the same bright dyes that they’d been using since the 1660s, and which they were famous for, and for which they were charging a fortune. The trouble was the coloured threads started coming up grey on the tapestry.

A dress manufacturer could just change the production line but these guys only managed about a square metre in a year (tapestries were about 12 feet high and longer across and were made by teams of weavers) so mistakes were pretty painful.

Today they’d have had young media types wandering around posh Parisian arrondissements holding up tapestry samples of bright red against orange and the same bright red against purple (“tu me fais marcher!?? vous me tournez ma clé à molette!!!?”) with the first one so much duller than the second. Continue reading →

On time and nuns and MP3s

P1040645In Ladakh, northern India, a few days ago, I decided to walk from the city of Leh to Choglamsar Tibetan refugee camp, where I had taught for a summer, 30 years ago. It was five km, and I was determined not to ask the way.

I asked the way.

So much had changed. There had once been three shops, Now. Well, now there are more.

In the office I explained my story. The man looked blank until I mentioned the Buddhist nun who had shared her room with me in children’s house number 8. Then he jumped up and disappeared into another room. Ani Garab is here, he said. Continue reading →

Ben Day, dot-maker, was a real person


From a Hotrod comic book, 1950s, printed with Benday dots

When I was researching for my next book (A Brilliant History of Color in Art, to be published by the Getty in November) I looked into the Benday dots that Roy Lichtenstein made famous. And I learned that Benday was a real person. Benjamin Day. So I imagined a comic book sequence telling the story of his invention. Obviously you’ll have to imagine it too, as I can’t draw. Though if anyone wants to mock it up that would be cool.

FRAME ONE and TWO, BEN DAY as a kid – done in the black and white style of an 1850s news engraving drawing

(1852: A boy of about 14 is hunched over a desk. Behind him is an open door, where

Proprietor: Benjamin Henry Day.

is written in appropriate lettering. You can see his father in the next room, obviously the editor, but with a compositor’s magnifying glass…

“Dad. Black and white’s so last century. Isn’t there a way we could get some color into the paper?”

“I’m not made of money, Ben. You’d have to make it really cheap.”

NEXT FRAME, almost the same but the door’s closed… The boy’s scribbling now and thinking to himself

“Now… if I just combined three plates of dots…” Continue reading →

A white chicken and a silver wheelbarrow

I looked out the window just now and THERE WAS A WHITE CHICKEN standing beside a silver wheelbarrow in our garden… Of course I wished – it almost hurt – that I had followed my instinct and painted it red, like in the William Carlos Williams poem. I had wanted to do it this spring just in case a white chicken wandered along. And then it did wander along and I wasn’t ready. Is there a metaphor somewhere there…. ? 

Faith in Conservation reissue

In January 2003 my husband, Martin Palmer, came home to the little cottage we lived in in the Peak District, and said that as part of the World Bank funding of some projects with his charity he had to write a book about what it was all about. They were going to publish it later that year.

He showed me the first draft of his history of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), the charity he had set up with HRH Prince Philip eight years before.

It was nice, I said, and obviously it was amazing for the short amount of time he had available. “But if the World Bank is going to publish it, couldn’t we write a better book, an engaging one, full of stories that people would actually enjoy reading?”

And he smiled, as if that was what he was hoping I’d say, and asked me if I’d put a bit of time into improving it. “And maybe rewriting,” he said hopefully.  Continue reading →

A deadline, thundering ahead

ImageThis untitled ink and watercolour sketch by the extraordinary Californian artist Martin Ramirez somewhere between 1948 and 1963 seems to sum up my week.

I’m spending every waking hour at a desk with a train of a deadline thundering noisily past the window.

This little person doesn’t have toppling bookshelves full of wonderful art books though (and nor do they have a wonderful swiveling chair which arrived on Monday, and which distracted me for several happy minutes, until I felt a bit woozy with all that turning.) Continue reading →