Why paint in only one colour?

Why would artists who have access to the full glory of colour chose to paint with only one colour? And would the effect be interesting? The National Gallery Monochrome exhibition answered these questions and included a dramatic ending.

Religion was one reason to paint in black and white. Medieval Christians thought that colour should be used only after the birth of Christ, so anything from the Old Testament should be in black and white. We saw an early painting of the nativity where mother, child, and animals were in colour but surrounded by a frieze showing Adam and Eve and other scenes from the Old Testament in black and white.

Another reason for painting in one colour was to show the virtuosity and skill of the artist, and this was probably the case (plus perhaps religious reasons) with Van Eyck’s St Barbara, one of the first monochrome paintings. It’s a powerful, intense picture that surely would inspire devotion, although I note a little blue at the top. This addition of a little colour is dramatic, and a fair few of the “monochrome pictures” included some colour.

St Brbara

It’s true of Mantegna’s picture of The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome, which seems to have the fires of hell (or could it be the colours of marble?) behind the figures. This picture, probably the one I would have chosen to take home if I could take just one, shows another reason for painting in black and white–to imitate sculpture. Renaissance artists were obsessed with the paragone, the debate over whether painting or sculpture was the superior art form. By showing that they could paint sculpture the painters surely thought that they could show the superiority of their art.


Lin would have chosen to take home Van Eyck’s sculpture painting of the Annunciation. The angel and the Virgin Mary are small and in separate frames, very frozen and still. The dove hovering above the Virgin’s head teases the sculptures who could not suspend a dove.

Van Eyck

Many artists until comparatively recently could see other painters’ work only in black and white prints if they could not see the original paintings, which often they couldn’t. This led to many painters producing “cheap” versions of their colour paintings in black and white and to paintings inspired by prints. One or the other was the reason for Hendrik Goltzius’s huge and erotic picture of Venus with friends; “Imagine having that on your wall,” said Lin.


The appearance of photography both challenged and inspired painters, and Gerhard Richter’s large painting of a prostitute with her fiancée was inspired by a photo in a newspaper and is painted like a fuzzy black and white photo. The prostitute was murdered, and one reason the picture astonishes is because the fiancée looks more like her son. What was going on? Why was she murdered? Did her fiancée murder her?


Marlene Dumas’s small picture was also inspired by a newspaper photograph and has great power in its simplicity.


The drama at the end was supplied by Olafur Eliasson’s Room with One Colour, a room painted in an intense yellow. It initially felt uncomfortable to be in the large room, and Lin thought she might have to leave immediately. She didn’t, adjusting slowly. But you did feel that you were in a different world. Leaving the room was a shock. The artist encouraged you to take photos in the room, and we did.

The exhibition didn’t light me up like many others have, but it did explain why artists might chose to paint with a single colour and show that the effect could be strong.


The figures of rhetoric XII: Diacope: “Burn, baby, burn.” “Sunday bloody Sunday.” “To be or not to be?”

Diacope (pronounced die-ACK-oh-pee) is where a word or phrase is repeated after a brief interruption.

One of the best known examples, voted the 22nd greatest line in cinema, is “Bond, James Bond.”

“Fly, my pretties, fly” is another well-known example from another film, The Wizard of Oz (although it doesn’t actually appear in the film–diacope has exerted its power by changing what is remembered).

Other examples from politicians, which again were never actually said, are Harold McMillan’s “Events, dear boy, events” and James Callaghan’s “Crisis, what crisis?” I suppose that Theresa May’s “Brexit means Brexit” is another, much poorer, example.

Vocative diacope is where you simply insert a name or title between the repeated words: “Zed’s dead, baby, Zed’s dead.”

It can be more than one word: “Do you remember an inn, Miranda, do you remember an inn?”

The other form is elaboration where you add an adjective: “From sea to shining sea.” “Sunday bloody Sunday.”

The extended diacope has the form AABA rather than simply ABA: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

“Alone, alone, all all alone”

“Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty we are free at last.” Martin Luther’s epitaph

“To be or not to be.”

All of this is taken from Mark Forsyth’s useful and very readable book “The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase” https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/12/22/the-figures-of-rhetoric-i-alliteration-full-five-fathom-deep-thy-father-lies/



Alexander on the computer

When his parents and I spend so long working at computers it was inevitable that Alexander would want to play on a computer. Plus a computer keyboard is simply a collection of buttons, and all children seem to love pressing buttons. I remember going to the Science Museum as a child and pressing as many buttons and turning as many handles as I could, wholly disregarding the exhibit. (I remember too the excitement of doors that opened as you walked up to them: in the 50s such doors could be seen only in museums of the future.)

Alexander sits beside me at the computer, and I show him A for Alexander. It’s annoying that the keyboard has all the letters in upper case when he is beginning to get used to lower case. He presses A, and a huge black A appears on the screen. (I’ve set the type size to 72.)  This is magic. I point him towards L and then E, saying L is for lolly and E for elephant. He presses the buttons and then I ask him to find X, “a cross.” He does. Slowly we type “Alexander does poo poos in the potty.” I emphasise P, which looks the same in upper case as lower case: P is for poo poos, pee pees, and potty.” We print out our poem, and he much enjoys taking the printed version from the printer. We have created something.

Soon he discovers that if he holds down a key the letter multiplies and quickly fills the screen. He loves this and giggles as the letters spread. I show him how to delete letters, and he learns that if he holds down that key then the letters disappear as quickly as they appear. This is more fun than writing words.

Alexander’s favourite question these days is “Wozz it say?” once he has typed “JJJJJJJJJJJJJJCCCCCCCUUUURRRRRRRRRRR,” I have to try to say it. He asks me again. I try to say it again. He copies me.

He asks “Wozz it say?” about machines in the kitchen, I answer “Krups” and “Bosch.” This morning he asked about a bottle of wine. I answered “Pinot Grigio.”

“Wozz it say on the back?” I read some Italian, reflecting that he should understand it better than me as he understands Spanish.

Once we have finished with words and letters–and my aim is to get him to be able to type Alexander without help–I bring up Paint. He likes that he can use the mouse to make lines across the screen. I then show him how you can fill in spaces with different colours. He likes that and fills in many spaces. He’s not good on colours. Until recently whenever we asked him what colour something is, he’d always say “green.” Today he knows pink.

I realise I’m not sure at what age children might be expected to recognise colours. I Google the question and learn that most children know one colour by three but don’t fully understand the concept of colour until age five.

It’s one of the many privileges of grandparenthood that I can observe Alexander so closely and record what I see. I was too preoccupied during parenthood to record my observations–or even, I fear, to even make them.

We print out Alexander’s pictures–unfortunately on a black and white printer–and he shows them to his parents with pride.

Alexanders picture

Alexander dressing: a Houdini act

Alexander, although only three, is aiming for complete independence, and being able to dress yourself is an important part of independence.

He doesn’t yet assemble his own clothes, but perhaps it hasn’t yet occurred to him that that’s a necessary step–as indeed, is selecting and buying clothes of the right size and then washing them regularly. All that’s to come.

I present him with a pair of pants, trousers, a tee-shirt, and shoes. After stripping off his sleeping suit he starts with his pants. He sits on the floor, which is wise: he doesn’t attempt the process standing up. He’s hazy on the idea of back and front, but with his pants it doesn’t much matter. Sometimes he puts both legs in the one hole, but today he does well. He gets one leg down each hole and then stands and pulls up his pants. They are often badly twisted but not today.

Next it’s the tee–shirt. He has been taught at school to start by thrusting his arms into the sleeves, something that usually demands a second party. But today he starts with simply trying to put in one arm. Then he pulls it onto his head with one arm not in a sleeve. He gets into a terrible tangle, making me laugh as he tries like Houdini to escape. He either doesn’t hear me laugh or is not bothered. With my help he uses the school method and soon has his tee-shirt on. This is going well.

To put on his trousers he sits down, and again he manages to get his legs into the right holes.  One foot gets stuck in his trousers, but once he’s pushed it through he stands up and pulls on his trousers.

He already has socks on, so only his slippers remain. He has learnt to put on his shoes at school and often comes out proudly showing his prowess. Unfortunately he has yet to grasp the idea of different shoes for different feet, and as chance ruthlessly dictates he comes out half the time with his shoes on the wrong feet. Slippers are more forgiving, but they are still intended for different feet. I help him get the right one for the right foot, and quickly he has them on.

He stands up proudly displaying his achievement, and I clap. At the same time I think of my 88-year-old, who at the other end of life has lost the ability to dress herself.

After dressing

A tour of the oldest continuously functioning school in Britain

I recently toured Winchester College, founded in 1382 by William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor to both Edward III and Richard II.  He was a poor boy who had his education paid for, and he decided to do the same for 70 poor boys. These scholars as they are called went onto New College Oxford, which Wykeham also founded, and became priests. I captured my impressions of the tour in an email to a friend, an Old Wykehamist who now lives in the US. This is an edited version of my email.

It was freezing cold and raining as Lin, Flo (now living in Winchester) and I did the tour. Lin immediately took against the guide, a bossy woman in a silly hat and blue cloak (“like the scholars wear, only theirs is black”). Most of the tour was outside and Lin chilled to fury, while Flo chilled to being white as death. I was put off by neither the bossy woman nor the cold and wet, which Lin concluded showed “complete lack of critical faculty.”

We started across the road from the main entrance. The bossy woman emphasised that we were outside the city walls, a dangerous time in the reign of Richard II when, as now, the country was falling apart. Riots outside the city walls were common, and so the school had to be built as a fortress. She pointed out the statue above the gate which, despite being there since the 14th century, was unweathered because it faced north.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“The Virgin Mary,” she said with some scorn–at my ignorance, I think, not anti-Catholic feeling.

Inside the gates she pointed us to the slaughter house, now being upgraded to a museum (“We have endless treasures”), and what was once the brewery. The water from the Itchin being downstream from the city was pull of sewerage, so the boys had to drink beer. She told us that the boys were not allowed to walk along the central passage where we walked: they had to go round the edges or diagonally across the yard. The boys called the flints in the ground “good intentions”; and “Where do good intensions lead?” the bossy woman asked, answering her own question “Hell.” The drains are called “hell.” She told us too how after one Christmas holiday the boys built a snowman and took him to their dormitory where he lasted three days. This reminder of cold did not go down well with Lin and Flo.

The chapel, as you know, was built by the same stonemasons who built the cathedral, but the chapel unlike the cathedral survived the reformation because the heads of the College were pally with the Puritans. The stained glass windows, however, were sent away to be cleaned 200 years ago. They came back looking magnificent, so magnificent that they were copies not the real thing. There are, however, some windows that go back 600 years. The bossy woman told us that all the boys had to have a religion, it didn’t matter which, but that the College was a Christian College–so all (did I get this right?) had to attend chapel on Sunday mornings. I asked if the boys could be atheists. She said yes, obviously thinking it a religion.

In the refectory, which felt very dead (the boys were on holiday), the bossy woman explained that it’s a College tradition for the boys to climb over the table to leave rather than go round or under. I imagined you scrambling over the table. She told us the square blocks of wood on which some dishes, including thick porridge, are served and said that surely this must be the origin of “a square meal.” Paintings of distinguished Old Wykehamists hung on the walls with Bishop Wykeham at the centre. I looked for you, but none of the paintings seemed to be less than 200 years old.


The bossy woman showed us the 400 year old painting of the College mascot, “the trusty servant,” whom I later learned is called a hircocervus. He embodies the qualities of Winchester alumni–ears that hear everything, a mouth that tells no secrets, an appetite for anything, an open hand, instruments for cleaning, a sword to defend, smart clothes, and the feet of stag for speed. You seem to have most of what is expected, but I wonder that Old Wykehamists are servants when Old Etonians are leaders–but then I think of Nelson Mandela’s saying “I am not a leader but a servant,” that is, the best kind of leader.

trusty servant

After seeing the places where the boys put their top hats and boaters and peeking into Toys, where the boys do homework (the word Toys further inflamed Lin, who thought it upper class twaddle), we went into Chantry. I must confess that I didn’t know that a chantry is a building that is both a tomb (the relevant warden and his wife are buried under the central floor) and a place where people can says prayers to hasten the journey of the dead to heaven and reduce the chances of an eternity spent in hell.

We saw as well an upper chapel, where the bossy woman made much of the fact that this is where the school took ultimate shelter if under attack. The door was thick, and because of the curved stairs up to the chapel marauders could not use a battering ram. I wondered if the chapel had ever been used in such desperate circumstances.

Most Old Wykehamists are, courtesy of simple mathematics, dead, many of them in war, and we walked round the cloisters with plaques for the dead on the walls. The bossy woman pointed out particularly the arty plaque to George Mallory, who died on Everest in the 20s. He took a letter to his wife to the top, and when he was found frozen in the 90s he didn’t have the letter. So did he reach the top, she asked. I’m sure that Old Wykehamists believe he must have done.

The last room we saw was the 17th century school room, a complete building that is a Wren double cube–but wasn’t actually built by Wren as the College couldn’t afford him. The bossy woman made this point with some resentment. Back where we started the bossy woman looked with great pride on the huge Magnolia Grandiflora and said that such trees didn’t grown on chalk but this had its roots in the swamp that Winchester was until the Romans drained it.

Once we were released the frozen Lin and Flo hurtled up College Street to get as far away as fast as possible, while I followed on languidly. They thought the school like a stone prison, while I thought it a great place to have gone to school. I think that you think so too.


Alexander mopping

Perhaps a three-year-old thinks that anything an adult does must be interesting; or perhaps Alexander simply wants to do what an adult does, possibly with the idea that he would then be one and be able to do whatever he wants (including eating chocolate eggs all day long); or perhaps he simply wants to do everything and anthing, to experiment constantly.

Whatever his motivation Alexander’s urge to mop arose from spilling his coffee. He doesn’t drink coffee, but he likes to play with the coffee machine–as he likes to play with everything. Rather to his amazement, his messing about led to the machine producing a cup of coffee. He carried it off with pride–and spilled some of it. His first response was to ask for a cloth. I gave him one, and he wiped the floor.

But he knows that mopping often follows spillages, which are common these days. Without me initially grasping where he was headed, he went to the cupboard where we keep the mop. He began to try and get it out. I hesitated for a moment with visons of Granny saying that it was a bad idea to give a three-year-old a mop. But I helped him get it out, partly because at 7.55 in the morning I was already tiring of having to find new experiments every five minutes.

The mop is at least twice the height of Alexander, so manoeuvring it was not easy. Together we took it to the sink, and I put in a little water. Although Alexander would rather do everything on his own, we together dipped the mop in the water. Then came the crucial part. I knew that Alexander would not be able to squeeze most of the water from the mop, just as he hasn’t the strength to squeeze the juice from oranges and grapefruits. Luckily he accepted my help. We squeezed the mop as dry as we could.

He began, holding the mop about a quarter of the way up its handle, with mopping the spot where the coffee had fallen. Then, with no method, he began to mop around the kitchen, choosing any spot that appealed. I watched the top of the handle moving violently around the room, hoping that it wouldn’t catch anything. It didn’t.

Now he wanted more water. We squeezed again together, less successfully this time. He mopped some more floor and then, presumably feeling the water under his bare feet, went and put his slippers on. This led him to slip when he resumed mopping. For a moment he wondered about crying, but mopping was such fun the he leapt up and continued. He kept it up for at least three minutes.


The figures of rhetoric XI: Hypotaxis and Parataxis (and Polysyndeton and Asyndeton): short and long, long, convuluted sentences

Hypotaxis is plain, short English, as encouraged by George Orwell. Mark Forsyth, the author of the book on rhetoric is against it. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2018/01/14/recantation/

Polysyndeton is using lots of conjunctions to keep a sentence going.

“And Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to his disciples saying ‘Take, eat, this is my body.’”

Asyndeton is using no conjunctions.

Parataxis is long, convoluted, complicated sentences full of clauses and subclauses. I associate it most with Proust and Henry James, but the first to write in such a way in English was Sir Thomas Browne, a physician:

“… thus is man that great and true Amphibium, whose nature is disposed to live not onely like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds; for though there bee not one to sense, there are two to reason; the one visible, the other invisible, whereof Moses seemes to have left description, and of the other so obscurely, that some parts thereof are yet in controversie; and truely for the first chapters of Genesis, I must confesse a great deale of obscurity, though Divines have to the power of humane reason endeavoured to make all goe in a literall meaning, yet those allegoricall interpretations are also probable, and perhaps the mysticall method of Moses bred up in the Hieroglyphicall Schooles of the Egyptians.”

Dickens used it:

“It was a maxim with Mr Brass that the habit of paying compliments kept a man’s tongue oiled without any expense; and that, as that useful member ought never to grow rusty or creak in turning on its hinges in the case of a practitioner of the law, in whom it should be always glib and easy, he lost few opportunities of improving himself by the utterance of handsome speeches and eulogistic expressions.”

And John Cleland used it in Fanny Hill:

“Coming then into my chamber, and seeing me lie alone, with my face turned from the light towards the inside of the bed, he, without more ado, just slipped off his breeches, for the greater ease and enjoyment of the naked touch; and softly turning up my petticoats and shift behind, opened the prospect of the back avenue to the genial seat of pleasure; where, as I lay at my side length, inclining rather face downward, I appeared full fair, and liable to be entered. Laying himself gently down by me, he invested me behind, and giving me to feel the warmth of his body, as he applied his thighs and belly close to me, and the endeavours of that machine, whose touch has something so exquisitely singular in it, to make its way good into me.”

All of this is taken from Mark Forsyth’s useful and very readable book “The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase”