Eleanor Birne

Eleanor Birne is a literary agent.

Gwydir Street​ in Cambridge, just off the appealingly scruffy Mill Road, is a narrow street of Victorian terraced houses. In the 1980s my secondary school English teacher lived there: he would drive his Morris Minor out to our village to tell us about books and music and more books. In my mind, Gwydir Street was the sophisticated centre of the urban world. Walk down it now, past the old...

Jean Cooke

Eleanor Birne, 18 April 2019

Jean​ Cooke liked painting her sofa. ‘I kept painting that sofa,’ she said. ‘It dominated my life. People came and sat down on it and I painted them.’ In Sofas Galore (c.1980), two figures recline at opposite ends of a pale peach Chesterfield, its creases and buttons lovingly re-created in paint. The two figures are the same person: Jason, Cooke’s son. One...

At the Royal Academy: Tacita Dean

Eleanor Birne, 7 June 2018

‘All​ the things I am attracted to are just about to disappear,’ Tacita Dean once told Marina Warner. Dean’s three almost simultaneous new shows – at the Royal Academy, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery – are full of transient things: paintings of an ant moving across a rock; images of clouds, of decaying fruit; portraits on film of people...

At Kettle’s Yard: The Reopening

Eleanor Birne, 22 March 2018

Jim Ede​ had been living abroad – first Tangier, then the Loire – when he found himself ‘dreaming of the idea of somehow creating a living place where works of art could be enjoyed, inherent to the domestic setting, where young people could be at home unhampered by the greater austerity of the museum or public art gallery, and where an informality might infuse an...

At Tate Britain: Rachel Whiteread

Eleanor Birne, 2 November 2017

On the way​ into the Rachel Whiteread retrospective at Tate Britain (until 21 January), in the long Duveen Galleries, you come across one hundred translucent coloured blocks, squatting on the floor. They look like giant cubes of jelly in blue, violet, yellow, orange, green. Each piece represents the underside of a chair, cast in resin. One hundred objects, moulded from one hundred different...

At Tate Modern: Fahrelnissa Zeid

Eleanor Birne, 20 September 2017

The centrepiece​ of the Fahrelnissa Zeid show at Tate Modern (until 8 October) is My Hell, a vast canvas – five metres across and two metres high – of swirling curves and broken triangles. It’s a diptych or possibly a triptych: yellows and blacks in the left section, blacks and reds to the right, arranged around a jagged absence close to the middle. The forms seem to...

Arundhati Roy

Eleanor Birne, 26 July 2017

I was working​ as a part-time bookseller in the university holidays when the Flamingo sales rep stopped by with a proof of Arundhati Roy’s first novel, The God of Small Things. I wasn’t senior enough to buy books for the shop – that responsibility fell to the managers – but I picked up the pink and black paperback he had left on the counter and opened it. You...

At New Hall: Modern Women’s Art

Eleanor Birne, 28 June 2017

According to​ its account of itself, the New Hall Art Collection at Murray Edwards College in Cambridge is the ‘most significant’ collection of modern women’s art in Europe. There isn’t much competition: women-only art collections are rare things, outside Washington’s vast National Museum of Women in the Arts (five thousand artworks by a thousand artists, from...

John Piper

Eleanor Birne, 29 March 2017

At the start​ of the war, John Piper – who had made his name as an avatar of high abstraction in the mode of Braque and Mondrian, his paintings hanging among the Giacomettis and Calders in the seminal 1936 show Abstract and Concrete – was struggling to get by. His pictures weren’t really selling, and he was living on the £3 10s a week he still got from his mother. He...

The first picture​ you come across in Tate Modern’s vast and various exhibition Performing for the Camera (until 12 June) is Yves Klein’s arresting and now iconic Leap into the Void (1960). It’s the jumping-off point for the whole show and it features the artist himself, well, jumping off. He’s throwing himself from a building in a suburban Paris street and is...

At Tate Modern: Sonia Delaunay

Eleanor Birne, 15 July 2015

Sonia Delaunay​ – who designed clothes worn by Gloria Swanson and Nancy Cunard, whose bold zigzag textiles and liveried Citroën graced the cover of the January 1925 issue of Vogue, who consorted with Picasso, Derain and Braque and criticised all of them – was born in 1885 as Sara Stern, one of five children of a Jewish foreman in a nail factory in Odessa. But there was a...

At the Fitzwilliam: Artists’ Mannequins

Eleanor Birne, 8 January 2015

If you​ walk through the main galleries of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge just now you’ll find yourself on a creepy treasure hunt. A one-legged mannequin on a crutch rests near Titian’s Tarquin and Lucretia. A pair of legs in suit trousers and shiny shoes, with bowler hat appended, reclines opposite a Signorelli. By Millais’s The Bridesmaid a long blonde wig has been...

When​ Ben Nicholson and Winifred Roberts got married, in 1920, they had everything they wanted: time and leisure to paint in, and enough of Winifred’s family money to travel wherever they liked. On their honeymoon they passed through Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples, Amalfi, Pisa, Portofino, Rapallo and Genoa. They rented – and later, with the help of Winifred’s father, a...

At Pallant House: Pauline Boty

Eleanor Birne, 6 February 2014

Pauline Boty, the only prominent female Pop artist among a generation of famous men, was a blonde beauty, described as a ‘goddess’ and likened by contemporaries to Brigitte Bardot. Others disagreed: she was more like Simone Signoret. ‘There were other beautiful girls who could paint at the time,’ the architect Edward Jones recalled, ‘but none who were quite as...

When she arrived at the Slade, in 1910, Dora Carrington looked quite conventional. But she soon hacked off her long hair into an androgynous bob. Her sophisticated friends Barbara Hiles and Dorothy Brett went bobbed too and the three became known as the ‘Slade cropheads’. They wore baggy smock dresses modelled on Augustus John’s gypsy drawings and found themselves written...

In 1845 Captain Sir John Franklin led 128 men in search of the final stretch of the Northwest Passage. When they failed to return from their expedition, a number of relief parties were sent out to find them. Over the next decade, naval commanders, traders and amateur sleuths collected objects and relics from the area: signs of what may have become of the lost men. Handkerchiefs, soap,...

At the Nunnery Gallery: Madge Gill

Eleanor Birne, 24 January 2013

Britain’s best-known Outsider artist is rarely seen in Britain. Until a couple of years ago, when the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester acquired some, you had to go to the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne to find works by Madge Gill. The nine-metre-long paper scroll that was briefly on show in the second part of the Gill exhibition at the Nunnery Gallery in Bow (the third and...

Anne Enright

Eleanor Birne, 18 October 2007

The Gathering – Anne Enright’s fourth novel, and her best – is aware of its heritage, of the books that have gone before it. It makes use of familiar signals and motifs. It is centred on a wake for a man who has died early: an alcoholic who was betrayed as a child, part of a large, chaotic family. So far so Irish. But there are new things too. There is nothing clichéd about the language (Enright treasures words; she polishes them, puts them on display). The narrator is someone new too; part of the new Ireland. She is Veronica, the dead Liam’s (slightly) younger sister, who lives a comfortable middle-class existence, and is trying to work out where she fits in with all this – with their combined past, and Liam’s death.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Eleanor Birne, 5 October 2006

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2004), was ostensibly a coming of age story. A teenage girl is abused by her repressive Catholic father and, following a political upheaval, moves in with her aunt, at whose house she has a fuller life and discovers her own sexuality. But the novel’s backdrop was the changing face of Nigeria. Adichie was born in a small...

At the Royal Scottish Academy: Ron Mueck

Eleanor Birne, 7 September 2006

Ron Mueck sculpts mottled skin, wrinkles, hairy forearms, calluses, double chins, freckles, bumpy nipples, yellowing nails and lined foreheads. His work depends on detail. He wants his meticulously constructed figures to be more human than the living things. His babies, adolescents, pregnant women, parents, isolated adults, old people are all intensely, studiedly, obsessively realistic. The...

Julie Myerson’s hauntings

Eleanor Birne, 20 July 2006

Julie Myerson believes in hauntings. She has spent the last 13 years writing variations on the same novel. She writes repeatedly about the death of babies and children, and the impact that death has on the parents. In Me and the Fat Man (1998) the baby dies in its pram. In Something Might Happen (2003) a daughter is washed off a beach into the sea. Deaths occur when guilty mothers’...

Jane Harris

Eleanor Birne, 6 April 2006

It’s a rare feeling to be swept up by a book in the childhood way, but when it happens it’s extraordinary: deeply familiar and strangely unsettling. I was staying in a large house in the middle of a French field when I first discovered Rebecca at a ridiculously advanced age. The house seemed to take on the same eerie feel as Manderley as I read on into the night. At about three in...

At what point do you become fat?

Eleanor Birne, 26 January 2006

I don’t know whether I’m fat or thin. I suspect I might be ‘plump’. I do know that when I was a teenager and in my early twenties, I was skinny. I also know that I am not skinny now. One reason I know this is that when I went back to my old university last summer, I had to be reintroduced to the college chaplain by my (still) skinny boyfriend who was in the same year...

On holiday with Ali Smith

Eleanor Birne, 23 June 2005

All three of Ali Smith’s novels are set in holiday places. In Like (1997), Amy Shone and her daughter Kate live on a caravan site in Scotland; the characters of Hotel World (2001) are guests and workers at the Global Hotel in an unnamed city; in The Accidental, the new book, the Smart family are spending their summer in a mock-Tudor holiday house near the Norfolk Broads. Caravan sites,...

The life and death of Stuart Shorter

Eleanor Birne, 19 May 2005

The first time Alexander Masters met Stuart Shorter, he was crouched in a doorway next to the discount picture-framing shop round the corner from Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge: as it happens, the framing shop I used to work for as a sandwich boarder in my teens. Every Saturday the shop owner would hand me a board and a stack of leaflets and I’d hurry down to Christ’s Pieces,...

Reading Hanif Kureishi reading his father

Eleanor Birne, 6 January 2005

Hanif Kureishi’s father, like many fathers, hated his job (he was a clerk at the Pakistani Embassy in London). But unlike many fathers, he tried in his spare time to forge for himself an alternative, fulfilling career as a writer. He was proud, humiliated, persistent. He wrote at least four novels, all of which were turned down by publishers and agents. Kureishi recalls mornings in the...

Toni Morrison

Eleanor Birne, 19 August 2004

Love comes dangerously close to looking like a creative-writing exercise. Characters tell different versions of the same story. Their pasts are recreated in flashback so that the reader can construct their lives from moments and fragments. Beloved and Jazz are bigger and more generous, maybe more old-fashioned, but more interesting; in Love, Morrison has tried to keep all the grand narrative elements without having anything grand to narrate. The result, a novel by drip-feed, is sterile. There’s no excess, and nothing to spare. Morrison is short of breath.”


Eleanor Birne, 9 October 2003

When my grandmother found out my mother was going to marry my father, she asked my mother to reconsider. ‘What about David?’ she said. ‘Wouldn’t you like to marry David instead?’ David is my father’s brother. He still lives alone in the council house my grandmother died in. He used to hear voices; schizophrenia was suspected until it turned out that he was...

From The Blog
13 March 2019

In the early 1970s, Sargy Mann was diagnosed with cataracts. He continued to paint, but he had to look much harder than most people. Eventually he went completely blind, but kept on painting.

From The Blog
26 April 2011

Turner Contemporary sits above Margate sands, a series of white boxes that, from a distance, looks like a municipal sports centre, but as you get closer and enter its immediate surroundings, pass the concrete benches and desert-chic flowerbeds and descend the gleaming white stairways, looks more like a piece of LA dropped into the down-at-heel Regency seaside town. But you can tell it's still Margate because the gallery café has shiny ashtrays on the terrace tables and serves fry-ups.

From The Blog
10 December 2009

Tracey Emin has complained to the police of 'harassment', after a spoof letter purportedly written by her was sent to some of her neighbours in Spitalfields. It was written in childish handwriting, similar to her now iconic style (but spelled correctly, which made it instantly suspect). It outlined her supposed plans for the Tenter Ground weaving works, an old Huguenot factory she is restoring: a swimming-pool was mentioned, along with the fact that she didn't like traditional building methods. She bought the building last year to a small fanfare of publicity. There was positive coverage in, among other places, the Observer ('Emin pays £4 million to save art district'), the Evening Standard (‘Emin weaves £4 million scheme to keep art in Spitalfields’) and the Times property supplement (‘Tracey Emin is leading the battle to save the "cultural heart" of East London from developers’). In interviews, Emin got all nostalgic, telling the Observer that the whole area used to be 'full of artists... the rents were still comparatively low and there were lots of our friends living around us and using freezing-cold studios.' Colliers, the agent who handled the sale of Tenter Ground, said she said she 'made the acquisition to ensure the building remained in use by artists'. This all sounds very altruistic and noble, until you read the bit where she says: 'I will be working there on my own.'

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