books, inspiration, stray thoughts, travels
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Brasenose Lane & Turl Street

Bridge of Sighs

From Christ Church Meadow

Cezanne & The Modern

Cezanne postcards

Toulouse-Lautrec & Deborah Levy

Painting from nature is not a matter of copying the subject, but of expressing one’s feelings.

Paul Cézanne

On Saturday I had an adventure all of my own. A day with no responsibilities, no requirements, no restrictions. I took myself on the train to Oxford, to the Ashmolean to see Cézanne and the Modern. The whole day was magically mine in a way that no other day has been for far, far too long.

The exhibition, and the whole Ashmolean, were a revelation: small enough to enjoy, but vast in scope and perspective. In the exhibition a Van Gogh lit up an entire room, an electric shock of colour. But my favourites, the paintings that I chose to stand or sit in front of and just breath in, were quieter. Cézanne’s still life watercolour of three pears, so exquisitely simple and lucid. A small oil study of a male bather. And another nude from behind, this time a woman by Degas. I seemed to be particularly attracted to these figures seen only from behind – there’s something so intriguing about them and the unknown eye/I watching them. What is the story lurking behind the painting?

Wandering through the rest of the museum – all glass views of the atrium, and beautiful white staircases, and open spaces – I found myself looking at a small bronze dog. A small bronze dog from around the eight to seventh century BC. A small bronze dog, recognisable in all its doggy energy, tail curling in a wag, all these thousands of years later. How strange, this urge to represent our world; how amazing that it seems to always have been there. (If you ever visit, or know the Ashmolean, the dog is one of the Lucera bronzes, in the Etruscan section of the museum.)

I hadn’t been to Oxford for almost fifteen years, so I followed the recommendations in Emma’s literary city guide & they were perfect. (If you’re in the market for an adventure near you, check out the other literary city guides – ‘travel resources for bookworms who love to eat’ – on Nicole’s lovely blog.) I had coffee & an almond croissant at The Missing Bean on Turl Street, and lunch at Mission Burrito on St Michael’s Street. Both places were fantastic – friendly, busy, but perfect for time alone: eating with a book in one hand seems to be perfectly normal in Oxford. And of course, I visited the bookshops too. I came home with a few extra books, including the beautiful volume from Notting Hill Editions by Deborah Levy above (pictured with a postcard of another view from behind, this time by Toulouse-Lautrec). I read and loved Swimming Home last spring, and I’m looking forward to reading this, Levy’s response to George Orwell’s Why I Write.

Mostly I just wandered around, unencumbered: no pushchair, nobody to please but myself. It was a close, overcast day, but when the sun came out the Oxford stone lit up, and the town glowed with all its honeyed warmth. It was impossible not to be slightly envious of the students – so young in such an amazingly beautiful place, full of ideas and opportunity. But everything for them is uncertain, still to unfold. I feel so lucky to know a little of how things will turn out. I have B, I have the little ones. I sometimes feel like I’m living at the centre of my life. Coming home, three children and a cat all desperate to press themselves close to me, was what made the day perfect.



  1. Ah, a perfect day, Sarah! The exhibition sounds particularly enticing. Have you read Alex Danchev’s (fairly) recent life of Cezanne? It’s occasionally irritating (too many things are “ballsy”) but his examination of place and memory in the work is wonderful. You want to be there, in Aix, in the dust and light.
    I have a couple of those Notting Hill editions — the Berger essay on his cataracts, is one — and they are so beautifully produced. I keep meaning to order more. Such a great idea — single essays in dark blue cloth bindings. Hand-sized.

    • Yes, it really was a perfect day! I haven’t read the life of Cezanne, but I’ll look out for it. His watercolour landscapes looked so fresh, almost as though he’d just stepped away from them. And, yes, those Notting Hill Editions – so wonderfully tactile! This one has the page numbers and dropped capitals at the start of each section in bright scarlet against the creamy white paper…(and, talking of place & memory, I started reading Mnemonic last night – your prelude is so beautiful…I’m going to be taking it slowly! I think Mavis Gallant’s advice for short stories must apply to essays too.)

  2. What a lovely day. My day today has been so different. It is 3:17pm. Perhaps this evening I can still capture a tiny bit of the mood you found here.

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