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Derided as wallpaper, Impressionist paintings have become masterpieces

Posted in Art, Artist, Historical articles, History, Nature, Uncategorized on Saturday, 31 December 2011

This edited article about art originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 888 published on 27 January 1979.

Renoir, picture, image, illustration

Renoir at the notorious Impressionist Exhibition by Andrew Howat

“This exhibition is the work of lunatics,” howled an art critic. “These pictures are fit only for wallpaper,” cried another. Their scorn was typical of the reaction aroused by the work of a group of young artists, soon to be known as the Impressionists, when it was first put on public view in 1874. Time has proved the critics wrong, for the Impressionists’ paintings are so valuable today that only a billionaire could buy them all.

However, at the time, they aroused a great scandal. The Parisian public expected realistic people in pictures, preferably pictures that told a story. Instead, they found themselves staring at pictures in which artists were obsessed with light and with the colours in shadows.

Some of the names in that exhibition are now immortal – Monet, Cezanne, Pissarro, Degas, Sisley and Renoir. These men saw, like their friend Manet who did not exhibit, things as they were at a fleeting moment. Certain painters before them, such as Constable and Turner, had also done this. If Monet saw hills that in the distance looked blue, he painted the blue. Yet in the 1870s other artists always painted hills green.

The Impressionists worked fast, in the open air, something which was unheard of then. Monet would paint the same scene at various times of the day to catch the different lights which transformed it. Form for him and his friends became less important than atmosphere and light. They found that shadows were not black but were different shades of the substance on which they fell.

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The weighty challenge of Sumo wrestling

Posted in Historical articles, Sport, Uncategorized on Tuesday, 13 December 2011

This edited article about sport originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 876 published on 28 October 1978.

Dignified applause from thousands of Japanese salutes a huge, paunchy man who weighs about 140 kilos. Standing triumphantly in the centre circle of hardened clay, he has just won a bout of sumo in one of the Grand Tournaments held yearly in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka.

Sports from abroad have been adopted in Japan, but none has affected the loyalty to the extraordinary art of sumo, which dates back nearly 1,800 years.

The first sumo match appears to have been performed before the Emperor Suijin in AD 200, and by the 8th century there were regional and national championships. Professionalism was introduced about four hundred years ago, when the rules were standardised in almost the same form they take today.

Sumo bouts are held indoors. A sumo pavilion has rows of high-priced seats overlooking the ring on all sides. The cheaper “seats”, at ground level, are simply rush mats on which the spectators squat cross-legged.

The ring is a clay platform, and in its centre there is a large circle of sand. The sumo wrestlers, enormous and pot-bellied from years of deliberate training for weight and overdevelopment of muscle, aided by the over-consumption of a high-protein stew, wear nothing but loin-cloths.

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The Gorilla is a gentle giant

Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, 3 November 2011

This edited article about animals originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 854 published on 27 May 1978.

Gorilla, picture, image, illustration

Gorilla by Susan Cartwright

Deep in the great, gloomy African forests lives the mighty giant of the ape tribe – the gigantic gorilla.

Twice as heavy as an average man and equally as tall, with arms that can span nearly three metres, the massive gorilla looks so terrifying that lions and leopards keep away from it.

Especially fearsome is its terrifying habit of drumming its chest with both hands, as if preparing for a devastating attack, and giving out a terrific roar.

Yet nothing could be more deceptive. Although it looks extremely fierce, a gorilla is not naturally aggressive.

It does not prey on other animals but feeds on shoots and fruit.

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Tim Birkin’s ‘Black Sheep’ Bentley

Posted in Cars, Engineering, Sport, Sporting Heroes, Uncategorized on Sunday, 25 September 2011

This edited article about cars originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 823 published on 22 October 1977.

Bentley, picture, image, illustration

The Black Sheep Bentley by Graham Coton

In the world of ‘vintage’ and ‘veteran’ motor cars, the name of Bentley holds an honoured place, and proud owners of the comparatively few cars that remain in the world with that famous name care for them as if they were members of their families.

W. O. Bentley was an enthusiast who was fascinated by automobile engineering before World War I, but it was in 1919 that he designed a classic sports car which set a standard for high quality in engineering and the materials used. To make sure that his cars were always built to these high standards, Bentley gathered round him the very best craftsmen he could find, and virtually every car was hand-built.

Bentley’s dream was to make a sports car that was not only fast and safe, but the best in its class, and he succeeded. Because they were all built so carefully, they were inevitably expensive, and output was very low compared with the factories of today which churn out cars by the thousand evey week.

In fact, the firm of Bentley Cars built only just over 3,000 cars during its eighteen years existence. The company was absorbed by Rolls-Royce in 1931, and the name lives on in Rolls-Bentley cars. About 300 of the original Bentleys are still running today.

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Nellie Bly, the round-the-world journalist

Posted in Adventure, Communications, Historical articles, Travel, Uncategorized on Wednesday, 7 September 2011

This edited article about Nellie Bly originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 807 published on 2 July 1977.

newspaper editor, picture, image, illustration

A typical nineteenth-century newspaper editor’s office

Ninety years ago this week a nervous young girl walked into the “World” newspaper office in New York and asked to see the editor. She had no appointment and the receptionist tried to turn her away.

For three hours she pleaded with him until he could hold out no longer. “This way, Miss,” he said and showed Elizabeth Cochrane into the editor’s office.

“On the ‘Pittsburgh Dispatch’ I wrote under the name of ‘Nellie Bly’,” she told the editor. “Here is a list of articles I should like to write for you.”

The editor, already impressed by her determination to see him, was even more impressed when he looked at the paper she handed over.

“Try this one,” he said, pointing to a topic. “If you can do it I’ll take you on.”

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War Ace Rene Fonck’s runway disaster

Posted in Aviation, Historical articles, Transport, Uncategorized on Wednesday, 24 August 2011

This edited article about transatlantic flight originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1037 published on 23 January 1982.

Igor Sikorsky, picture, image, illustration

Sikorsky designed the impressive S-35 but Rene Fonck’s flight ended in tragedy after taking off weighed down with disastrously high quantities of fuel loaded earlier from
countless barrels brought to the runway. Picture by Severino Baraldi

Once he had been a shepherd boy in his native France; now Raymond Orteig owned two fashionable New York hotels. During the 1914-18 War, he had liked nothing better than listening to tales of aerial combat related to him first-hand by French pilots sent on short missions to the USA.

The more Orteig heard, the more he wanted to do something practical to help speed up the conquest of the air. In 1919, just before Alcock and Brown, as we have seen, made their immortal flight from Newfoundland to Ireland, Orteig had his great idea. He offered 25,000 dollars to the first man to fly from New York to Paris or from Paris to New York.

Even after Alcock and Brown’s triumph, a non-stop flight from Newfoundland to Ireland remained dangerous in the extreme for several years, and a New York-to-Paris flight, or vice-versa – almost twice as long – was out of the question. And it hardly helped that Orteig’s prize was only half as much as that won by the British pair. Not surprisingly, his offer was not so much forgotten as filed away for future reference.

After Alcock and Brown’s feat, other records followed in quick and thrilling succession. Typical of the times was the first round-the-world flight between 24th April and 28th September, a feat achieved by two American seaplanes, Chicago and New Orleans, with 57 stops. Two other seaplanes failed to make it, but no lives were lost. A striking feature of the planes was that their pontoons (or floats) were replaced by wheels when needed for landing on dry land.

Meanwhile, no one took up Orteig’s challenge until a Frenchman appeared on the scene. He was France’s greatest air ace of the First World War, Rene Fonck, who had shot down at least 75 enemy planes.

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Gunpowder, treason and plot

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty, Uncategorized on Wednesday, 10 August 2011

This edited article about James I originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1007 published on 27 June 1981.

Guy Fawkes, picture, image, illustration

Guy Fawkes is brought before King James and his Council, by Clive Uptton

Someone once called King James I of England “the wisest fool in Christendom”. It was an apt remark, for James, although a clever man, was a very misguided ruler. It is from his reign that the breach between the Crown and the Commons began to open into that great chasm that was to change the relationship between the two parties for all time.

On her deathbed the great Elizabeth I made it known that she wanted her successor to be Mary Stuart’s son, King James VI of Scotland. Early in the morning of 24th March, 1603, a horseman, Sir Robert Carey, set off to the north to tell James that he was now King of England as well as of Scotland.

Thus, under this first Stuart king, the two countries were united for the first time, although for the next century the government of each was kept strictly separate.

The English were immediately wary of James. What sort of rule would they get from the son of a Catholic queen coming from a country that was fiercely Puritan? James steered a centre course and maintained the form of Church worship in England that had been modified by Queen Elizabeth, adding to it a new translation of the Bible that is still widely used after more than 350 years.

The result was that neither the Puritans nor the Catholics were satisfied with the way in which this new, tall, gangling monarch took care of their religious affairs. Some of the Puritans eventually decided to emigrate, to Holland or to North America, where they founded the New England states and carved their name in history as the Pilgrim Fathers.

Most of the Catholics stayed, and when James began to legislate against them with severity, they decided upon drastic action. They resolved that when James and his son, Henry, Prince of Wales, arrived to open Parliament in November, 1605, they would blow everyone sky high.

Barrels of gunpowder were hidden in the vaults and a Catholic soldier named, as everyone knows, Guy Fawkes, was hired to do the deed. But when warning was brought from an informer to the king “that Parliament shall receive a terrible blow”, James remembered how his father, Lord Darnley, had been murdered in a gunpowder plot in Scotland, and he had the cellars searched. The conspirators were arrested, tortured and executed.

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Andrew Marvell

Posted in English Literature, Literature, Uncategorized on Monday, 27 June 2011

Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678) was a Parliamentarian and tireless critic of corruption in the Stuart court and the Roman  Catholic church.

Andrew Marvell, picture, image, illustration

Andrew Marvell

He was also one of the finest of England’s metaphysical poets, and among many geniuses and a few quiet Divines, he wrote in a most original poetic language uniquely fanciful yet robust, as perhaps befits a man born in the northeast of England. He was educated at grammar school in Hull and enetered Trinity College, Cambridge. in 1633. Little is known about his time on the continent during the civil war, save that he learned Spanish, Italian and French, returning in 1647. In the early 1650s he was tutor to General Thomas Fairfax’s daughter, and it was at their home, Nun Appleton House, that he wrote the first so-called country-house poem, in which he ponders on different lives in a time of war. Later, he assisted his friend, John Milton, as Latin secretary to Cromwell’s Council of State, and his loyalty to the great blind poet was such that he prevailed upon Charles II not to have Milton executed for his anti-monarchical writings. It  is often forgotten that Marvell was a long-standing MP for Hull, whose interests he advanced with great gusto in the House. Others will remember him more for his mastery of subtle argument within highly imaginative and technically brilliant poetry.

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The birth of the Second Reich

Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, 19 May 2011

This edited article about Kaiser Wilhelm I originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 943 published on 16 February 1980.

kaiser, picture, image, illustration

The first Kaiser being acclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors; insets: (left) Palace of Versailles; (right) King William of Prussia.

Paris was gripped in a ring of steel. For months the citizens had resisted the assaults of the besieging German forces, and endured ceaseless bombardment by their artillery. Now, in January, 1871, the growing prospect of starvation posed an even greater threat.

The German armies, under the supreme command of the King of Prussia, had their headquarters at the old royal town of Versailles, some 20 kilometres south-west of the capital. The townspeople there were spared the horror of the siege, though they could hear the thunder of the guns.

Suddenly, on the 18th January, a louder roar of cannon fire rattled the windows in the town. For a moment many thought that the war had come to their doorstep; but their fears were groundless. What they had heard were the reports of guns firing a royal salute.

The person thus honoured was King William of Prussia. On this day he was to be the central figure in a ceremony of historic importance.

The purpose of the ceremony was to proclaim that Germany was no longer to be a collection of separate principalities, but would henceforth be a united empire; and William was to be its first Kaiser, or Emperor. It was an ominous fact that the Germans chose to stage this event not in their own land, but on the soil of a nation which they had brought to its knees by military might.

There was to have been a procession to the Palace of Versailles, but heavy snowfall had caused its cancellation. Instead William rode in a closed carriage to the entrance of the vast palace which Louis XIV had built. Inside, the king passed between ranks of motionless soldiers into the magnificent Hall of Mirrors.

In the great chamber, light from the crystal chandeliers shone on a glittering array of kings, princes, dukes, generals and high officials. Almost all were in military uniform, many in the spiked helmets once regarded as typically German.

William took his place on a raised dais. After a religious service, he made his declaration, proclaiming the establishment of a German Empire, with himself as Kaiser. The proclamation was followed by the Kaiser’s address to his people.

The ceremony over, a burst of cheering echoed through the hall, as swords and helmets were waved excitedly in the air.

None present guessed that, less than 50 years later, the Hall of Mirrors would be the setting for the signing of the Peace Treaty after the First World War – the war which brought the short-lived German Empire down in ruins and led to the abdication of the Kaiser.

‘King Richard the Second’ by William Shakespeare

Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, 22 April 2011

King Richard the Second is an early play by Shakespeare, probably written around 1595. It was listed with the histories in the First Folio, but was printed under the title The tragedie of King Richard the second in the Quarto of 1597.

Richard II, picture, image, illustration

The famous actor Charles Kean as Shakespeare’s Richard II, by Ralph Bruce

Uniquely for one of Shakespeare’s plays, it was published in two subsequent Quartos in 1598, and two later ones in 1608 and 1615. Shakespeare’s principal source for the play was Holinshed’s Chronicles, and the playwright propels the complex political story towards its apotheosis, with Richard II’s deposition and the usurpation of his throne by Henry Bolingbroke. The subject was of great interest to the late Elizabethans, who were very concerned about the succession given their ageing childless Queen. Much of the play is written in highly wrought poetic language, and unusually there is little prose variation in the drama. Richard himself is given some of the greatest rhetorical moments, and Shakespeare clearly enables the audience to consider the King’s psychological flaws through these high flown moments of self-revelation, a feature of the character exploited to perfection by Sir John Gielgud, its most famous creator. Richard sees himself as a “lark” to Bolingbroke’s “night owl”, and the trial scene in which he so grandly patronises the insulting Northumberland, is one of the great set pieces in the history plays. The play contains one of the most famous and best-loved of all Shakespearean speeches, delivered by the ailing John of Gaunt, which opens with these now immortal lines on the subject of England:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men…

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