Sargent Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

London’s National Portrait Gallery really does put on some crackers of shows, and the latest is ‘Sargent: Portraits of Artists & Friends’, on until 25th May 2015. The showcase of 68 oil paintings and pastel drawings is a ‘Who’s Who’ of the theatrical, literary, artistic and musical worlds of Sargent’s late 19th and early 20th century era. All of them friends, the faces and expressions are brilliantly depicted – I never knew Monet was quite so handsome as a younger man! – the scenes are evocative, the clothes so beautiful. Yes, this is one to linger over and/or revisit. Sargent had blazing eyes – now we know why. Go to npg.org.uk to pre-book tickets.

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Dreamy day trips for garden lovers

There’s nothing as nice as pottering around other people’s gorgeous gardens – admiring, being inspired, noting plants you like, simply enjoying the ambience and the spirit of a place. On behalf of the National Gardens Scheme, Garden Tours Etc specialises in leisurely visits to lovely gardens off the beaten track, some of which rarely open to the public. Every spring and summer, founder Janine Wookey (a former editor of The English Garden magazine) and her guiding team lead small groups of garden lovers on day visits around London and the Home Counties. On 20th May, for example, there’s ‘Ham & High: tamed and untamed’ – a perambulate around three fabulous urban gardens, with lunch too; ‘Roses all the way in Hampshire’ on 25th June promises a deluge of blooms at three diverse gardens, including the famous walled garden at Mottisfont Abbey, which holds the Graham Stuart Thomas collection of old fashioned roses. Prices start at £70 per person. See gardentoursetc.co.uk for more information on this year’s schedule and how to book.

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Leighton House in London – A Victorian Obsession

If you find the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the late 19th century luscious and alluring, you’re in for a double treat when you visit ‘A Victorian Obsession’ at Leighton House in Kensington. Here, until 29th March ’15,  you’ll find highlights from the art collection of Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, one of Mexico’s most prominent businessmen and a lover of all things Pre-Raphaelite (he has been known to bid against fellow art buff, ‘The Lord’ – our own Andrew Lloyd Webber – at auction). The highlight is Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s magnificent oil painting of 1888, ‘The Roses of Heliogabalus’, with its heaps of rose petals surrounding decadent Romans. The room it is hung in is scented with roses too – gorgeous! Leighton House itself is  a remarkable survivor of the Victorian era: the luxurious home and studio of painter Frederic Lord Leighton, and the stage for many a glittering gathering. It’s packed with wonderful furniture, paintings, ceramics… So much to see and enjoy.

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Scotney Castle – memories of World War I

A new exhibition that sheds fascinating personal light on the First World War has opened at the National Trust’s Scotney Castle, Lamberhurst, Kent. A few years ago, NT volunteers found an old tin box in the castle’s attic. Inside was a secret cache of letters, diaries and battlefield maps belonging to Brigadier-General Arthur Hussey, a career soldier who arrived on the Western Front in France in October 1914, and whose family lived at Scotney Castle. He describes gas attacks, the introduction of tanks or ‘hush-hush’ as they were named, and the desolate battlefields; he also writes about the gymkhanas held behind the lines to keep up spirits, and refers to friends such as the poet Siegfried Sassoon and Jack Seely (who wrote ‘Warrior, the Amazing Story of a Real War Horse’). The contents of Arthur’s box is now the best collection of WWI memorabilia held by the National Trust, and a superb primary source for anyone interested in the history of this period. It seems that nothing was ever thrown away at Scotney and volunteers also dug out some rare Fortnum & Mason catalogues of the time, listing the types of foods that could be sent out to the Front. Put aside a few hours, it’s compelling stuff.

www.nationaltrust.org.uk/scotney-castle

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Antique Furniture book out now

My new book, A Guide to Collecting Affordable Antique Furniture (£19.95, Vivays), is now available to buy on Amazon and at book shops. I hope Antique Furniture will inspire readers to consider antiques afresh for their classic looks, heritage and eco credentials, and, at the very least, showcase some great collections of historic furniture here in the UK and abroad.

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Harveys Furniture blog goes live

I love browsing furniture, in shops and on line, so I’m chuffed that Harveys Furniture have asked me to contribute to their new blog. There’s good advice on style, care and colour schemes, so take a look if you’re tempted to reinvent a room. http://blog.harveysfurniture.co.uk/author/caroline-wheater/

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Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain

I went to see this show last week with my art loving sister in law. The colour and detail and pattern were sumptuous in many of the paintings. I particularly loved the work of John Everett Millais – his use of colour is scintillating, and his depiction of people and their clothing so good. William Holman Hunt produced some paintings that really pull at the heart strings, and Rossetti’s women glow with glamour. This is art you can really wallow in, no wonder Lord Lloyd Webber loves it so much – it’s pure theatre.

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Don’t miss Hockney at the RA

After reading three negative reviews of the David Hockney exhibition ‘A Bigger Picture’ at the Royal Academy in London last week (Telegraph, Guardian, Evening Standard), I wondered whether we had been at the same show. To the art critics it is too big, sometimes poorly executed, unremarkable subject matter, blah blah blah. I found it quite the opposite – an explosion of colour, a joyous record of the seasons, a rich depiction of the unsung Yorkshire countryside, all done in a spirit of generosity.  I loved the sequence of  iPad prints, so beautiful and evocative, I loved the film created using nine cameras that captured nature in the raw.  I loved the first oil and watercolour paintings from observation that showed how Hockney worked up to his final series of more abstract paintings. I loved the drawings and the sketchbooks, showing the nitty gritty of making art. I loved the scene setting Grand Canyon painting, probably the nearest I’m going to get to seeing this natural phenomenon in real life.  Finally I loved ‘The big hawthorn’ – this is a hawthorn with personality! I’m so pleased to hear the show is sold out until March because Hockney’s art is a breath of fresh air and a powerful celebration of life. It’s on until April 9, so book up quick.

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New discoveries

Early autumn is a brilliant time for spotting new designer-makers, with shows such as Origin at London’s Spitalfields, Goldsmiths’ Fair in the City, and Ceramics in the City at the Geffrye Museum, all on in the space of a few weeks. Makers I particularly liked this year were the jeweller Susan Beale, susanbeale.co.uk, who makes lovely ‘moonscape’ rings and bracelets – she calls them ‘dotty’ – they are silver, carved with tiny holes coloured with enamel. Someone else I particularly liked, and hadn’t seen before, was the potter Chris Barnes who works at the Morvern Pottery in Cumbria, morvernpottery.co.uk. He makes cheerful stripy stoneware bowls, mugs and vases – they are really solid, with a tactile glossy glaze. The bowl I bought has already come into use for crisps, creme fraiche and olives. Another ‘find’ was Trisha Needham, trishaneedham.com, who hand prints all her textile designs in her studio in London – there are cushion covers, lampshades, scarves and more, all in gorgeous patterns featuring things like peapods and echinaceas.

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