The Feral Beast: Portrait of a curator moving on

Eats anything that moves
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The Independent Online

All change at the Royal Academy of Arts, after the abrupt departure of a senior curator. MaryAnne Stevens has quit Piccadilly's most august institution after 29 years' service, amid rumours of a personality clash with director Charles Saumarez Smith. The timing is not ideal: Stevens cleared her desk just five days after the opening of the RA's major new Manet retrospective which she put together. Friends of Stevens say she will be a serious loss to the gallery, having joined in 1983 from the academic world, and being an excellent communicator who can speak with authority on almost any major artist. A spokesman confirms she left on 31 January, but declines to comment on rumours of a bust-up. "MaryAnne will continue her relationship with the RA by delivering a select number of ongoing projects, within a wider consultancy portfolio." The RA is offering a walking tour of Manet's London and lunch with MaryAnne on 8 March, for £40 a head. At that price, let's hope she spills the borlotti.

Speedy Huhne

One detail not mentioned in the Chris Huhne case is that his family fortune comes partly from speed cameras. His father, Peter Paul Huhne, founded Traffic Safety Systems in 1996, and Huhne himself was once a director of the company. He and his father resigned as directors in December 2003, some months after he was banned from driving. The company pioneered the use of mobile CCTV units and speed cameras by police forces, not dissimilar to the sort he was caught by – several times.

Pooh sticks

You might have thought an East Sussex farmhouse with links to the Rolling Stones and Winnie the Pooh would be snapped up, but no. The owners of Cotchford Farm, where A A Milne wrote Winnie-the-Pooh, and where guitarist Brian Jones drowned in the swimming pool in 1969, are struggling to find a buyer, almost a year after putting it on the market for £2m. Now, they're beginning to wonder if the Stones fans hiding in the bushes could be putting people off. "Over the years we've had all sorts of odd people jumping out of rhododendron bushes or taking pictures of themselves with teddy bears," sighs Harriet Johns. Roxanne Fontana, who founded the Brian Jones Memorial Fan Club, says people make pilgrimages from all over the world. "Sometimes they will knock on the door and ask to look around, but others are found sneaking around the garden," she says. "The owner has been really nice and tells potential buyers." Mrs Johns adds: "Anyone who bought the house wouldn't have to do this– they could say the house was private." Or charge £5 a pop?

A Vine example

Staff at The Times are keen to prove how indispensable they are, as threats of a merger with The Sunday Times hangs in the air. So was it advisable for beauty editor and columnist Sarah Vine to launch her own fashion website, Get the Gloss, which appears to take up an awful lot of her time? Vine has drawn a lot of attention to herself in recent months by filling her Times column with indiscretions about her husband, Education Secretary Michael Gove. Now, she has landed herself in trouble by recommending buying puppies as a way of cheering yourself up – the Goves have just adopted a bichon frisé called Snowy. "I really object to you suggesting getting a cute puppy to cure January blues – even in fun," fumes reader Patsy Frederiksen. "Taking on a dog or puppy requires careful thought and analysis of one's lifestyle. Dog rescue shelters are full of rejected pets acquired on a whim. And why a fancy breed? Mongrels are just as charming and often healthier than expensive, deliberately bred dogs." Just as well most people can't comment on Vine's Times pieces, safely hidden behind a paywall.

Twitter who?

Meanwhile, Michael Gove's hot‑head adviser Dominic Cummings has still not denied contributing to the Twitter stream @Toryeducation, which is under investigation after making personal attacks on journalists. Now, some are wondering if Cummings might also be the author of a rather brilliant spoof account, @SteveHiltonGuru, parodying David Cameron's bohemian ex-adviser. Recent gags include: "Betty Ford: Dave needs to check in for his war-mongering, Mali is a bridge too far." Both Twitter feeds have quotes from Sun Tzu. Cummings was spotted last week carrying a book on the art of guerrilla warfare. He did not return my request for a comment.

Naughty knight

Alec Guinness's diaries, recently bought by the British Library, reveal that his opinion of Laurence Olivier later in life was less than positive. The day after Olivier's death in 1989, Sir Alec described the great actor as "unpleasant, possibly even vindictive". But could Sir Alec's judgement have been coloured by a snub he received from Olivier back in the Sixties? In his memoir Blessings in Disguise, Guinness records how Olivier came up to him after watching his final rehearsal as Malvolio for a 1969 TV version of Twelfth Night. "Larry caught me by the arm. 'Fascinating, old dear. I never realised before that Malvolio could be played as a bore.' I was a little put out. I would hear the word 'bore' running through the rest of my performance. When I told Ralph [Richardson], he shrugged it off. 'He's wrong, old cock. He can be wrong, you know. I think your performance is fine.'" A sensitive flower.

Vintage MPs

The latest audit of the Government's fine wine collection reads like one of Jilly Goolden's more excitable tasting notes. Starting with a 1955 Chateau Latour, the report details the condition of 39,000 wines stored beneath Lancaster House on The Mall. A 61 Latour is "still spicy and youthful with a gawkiness which time should resolve". But the 75 Cheval Blanc is "a bit disappointing, lacks fruit and charm". Meanwhile, a 2001 Chateau la Lagune is "fresh and bright, if a little simple". Whoever writes this stuff should do an audit of the Cabinet.

Suitably Spall

Mike Leigh has finally got the go‑ahead to make a film about the painter J M W Turner. The director has been wanting to make the biopic for years, and last week revealed that filming is to begin, with Timothy Spall playing the landscape artist. The news was greeted with some excitement at Petworth House in West Sussex, home of the Wyndham family, where some of the film will be shot. Spall has divided opinions in his current role as Lord Emsworth in the BBC series Blandings. Some say he is the wrong shape: in the P G Wodehouse books, Emsworth is tall and aquiline. So we're sure he'll be ideal for the role of a shambling genius artist who went under the pseudonym "Puggy".

Jemima keeps her cool

Trial-evader Julian Assange may be running out of supporters, but at least he'll always have his mum. Christine Assange has made a rare public foray to rebuke Jemima Khan for her New Statesman article which says the WikiLeaks founder is at risk of becoming "Australia's Ron L Hubbard". Mrs Assange ranted online: "While spoilt socialites stamp feet b/c they're not bumped to top of #Assange to do list, ordinary people remain steadfast in their support." Jemima's response has been suitably dignified, but who are these so-called "ordinary people"? WikiGeeks?