The Mountains of Holland

Arriving in Oxford at midday, I set off to the former site of Oxford’s castle and, in more recent times, its prison. The site has a grisly history; Empress Mathilda was besieged here by King Stephen in the eleventh century while its grounds proved to be filled with the corpses of executed criminals (several of whose bodies were then used for medical experiments). One tower still stands and I stumbled across it by accident in a suburban street; it was not unlike stumbling across the Burnett’s secret garden.

Following this, I set off for the Christ Church Picture Gallery. Oddly, I’d never been there before and although the collection is comparatively small it was quite eclectic ranging from Russian Orthodox icons (made from metal and ceramics rather than the more high status ones that are better known) to Rysbrack sculptures, Renaissance painting and Medieval triptychs and paintings. Particular highlights were Salvator Rosa’s proto-romantic (a stoic by inclination, his works show a Baroque aesthetic depicting nature in similar terms to David Friedrich) and Jacopo Bassano, a Venetian whose showed a similar use of chiascuro to Caravaggio and similar brushwork to El Greco. As ever, the colours and pigments in the medieval paintings were wonderful, though I was especially drawn to a crucifixion scene by the Master of Delft. The crowds were drawn in the same manner as Brueghel but the rich pigments, gold in particular, seemed more typical of earlier painters.

The gallery featured an exhibition of the drawings of Thomas Graham Jackson, architect of the Examination Schools and the Bridge of Sighs (and ghost-story writer), showing detailed watercolours of Italy and France and designs for Oxford (including what looked like an attempt to build a tower similar to Magdalen in Christ Church). The Bridge of Sighs proved to owe more to Mostar than Venice. Following this we went for a walk around Christ Church. I had been in the great hall before but had quite forgotten the small Alice in Wonderland figures in the stained glass. Conversely, the cathedral was something else I had missed. Highlights included the Morris and Burne Jones stained glass, an enamelled window showing Jonah underneath a fruit tree staring at a far-off city (the colours fading in the background to impart a sense of perspective), the carved wooden dragons in the choir stands and the combination of fan-vaulted gothic with later, more classicist architectural styles in the transepts.

As the evening drew on, I went to a friend’s photo exhibition. The rather beautiful photos were of the Isis and the Thames, showing Willows trailing through the water, young moorhens, frozen leaves in Oxford’s Botanical Gardens and boats by Magdalen bridge. As the photos were all themed around water and rivers, the evening included a recital of poetry with related themes. I especially liked Willow Poem by William Carlos Williams (who I was aware of) and The Swan by Mary Oliver (who I was not aware of).

Having mentioned the Victorian preoccupation with spiritualism with regard to Highgate, I began wondering why it was that this seemed so poorly reflected in Victorian literature. It emerges to some extent in gothic writing from Wilde to Stoker but otherwise one is left with E F Benson’s demonic slugs and Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories. So, I was surprised to come across The Damned by JK Huysmans, a novel where such concerns are altogether more central. As a novel it reminds me of the debate as to whether realism could be described as an acute aesthetic technique for depicting both the individual consciousness and its social context or simply a way of seeing such matters that was specific to a certain class and background. The most obvious parallel is between Jane Austen (portraying the details of English provincial life in a manner typical of early realism) and Mary Shelley (portraying a range of locations in a markedly fantastic manner). Of the two, Shelley was probably the one who depicted the spirit of her age more accurately, confronting the ideals of her anarchist and feminist parents with the monsters produced by the French revolution. Much the same could be said when contrasting Huysmans with many of his naturalist contemporaries; "there was always a fundamental intellectual difference between you and other realists… you execrate the age in which you live while they adore it… sooner or later you were bound to flee the Americanisation of art." Contrasting himself with Zola and the grimly utilitarian character of his age Huysmans depicts the same sense of withdrawal to be found in Madame Bovary or Oblomov; "it’s just as positivism reaches its very zenith that mysticism re-emerges."

Equally, the novel questions many of the claims made by realism, citing its obsession with crime and sensation as being little different from that of Gilles. By contrast, Huysmans leaves the novel almost as a commonplace book, lacking the artificially plotted character of much realist fiction. The novel openly foregrounds such concerns in a decidedly post-modern fashion, taking a writer working on a biography of Gilles de Rais as its protagonist and comparing de Rais with Des Esseintes. The identification with the protagonist is marked in the extreme, more resembling Isherwood than contemporary writers.

Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is perhaps best known for the author’s didactic moralising against drink and dissipation but I was nonetheless impressed with how the novel depicts both an unhappy marriage and the consequences of adultery from the perspective of the other parties. Neither of these are unknown in Victorian fiction but nor are they widespread. I was also reading a seminar on How Novels Think at The Valve, I was struck by this; "where such a novel as Jane Eyre allowed the family to eclipse civil society as the symbolic means of resolving social contradictions, Dracula turns the tables and allows a radically inclusive society to render the family obsolete, ending the regime of the liberal individual." The interesting thing about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is that women are both marginalised and the guardians of the family and civil society. Bronte frequently critiques conventional assumptions about the role of women; "would you use the same argument with regard to a girl?… you would have her to be tenderly and delicately nurtured," supported by her having her heroine step outside social convention and support herself; "his idea of a wife is a thing to love one devotedly, and amuse him and minister to his comfort in every possible way." Nonetheless, the role played by Helen throughout is otherwise a conventional female one, nurturing and standing for morality and the family in contrast to the dissipation of her husband.

Reading Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Burial, I was struck by the tension between Browne’s faith in christ and the resurrection on the one hand and by his antiquarian interest in such pagan habits as cremation and mummification on the other; Baconian scepticism and mysticism in one text.

Starting by visiting Great Coxwell Tithe Barn, a twelfth century structure much beloved by William Morris, who characterised it ‘as beautiful as a cathedral, yet with no ostentation of the builder’s art.’ It’s easy to see why Morris liked it so much; made from the local pinkish-grey stone, it’s far larger than I had envisaged, while the elaborate purlin roof beams in the cavernous interior do indeed give it the air of a cathedral. On the other hand, Morris’s tendency to romanticise the middle ages does lead him to ignoring the fact that the barn was effectively serving as an ecclesiastical tax office. The nearby church of St Giles is of a similar period, with assorted monsters still louring from the tower. The church sits at the summit of a hill and looks out over most of the Vale of the White Horse.

Arriving at Buscot Park, I began by walking around the grounds, designed in the 1930s in a formal Italianate style by Harold Peto. I have to admit that his style struck me as rather austere and uncongenial, excepting some more imaginative follies like a pair of Egyptian statues guarding the entrance to a sunken garden. The house itself was rather more impressive; the entrance hall was flanked by porphyry columns and contained black and gold furniture designed in an Egyptian style (this seemed something of a theme and was apparently fashionable after Nelson had won the Battle of the Nile, with alabaster canopic jars dotted round the rooms, as well as the first example of a Wedgewood canopic jar that I’ve seen or am likely to), with the rest of the design being more influenced by Boulle marquetry. The green room next to it contained a range of Dutch paintings, including one Rembrandt (and a surprisingly tolerable Rubens), Qing vases and Dutch designed cabinets decorated with red-stained tortoiseshell. This led to a red dining room, which contained two landscapes paintings by William Lambert that were very evidently drawing upon Claude’s work.

Next was something more impressive; four large Burne-Jones paintings depicting the story of sleeping beauty, set into a gold frieze lining the room and with additional smaller panels continuing the narrative inbetween the paintings. Everything else in the room fitted with the gold colouration, excepting some turquoise Kangxi vases. Later rooms continued the Pre-Raphaelite theme by including a Rossetti painting of Pandora’s box, GF Watts’ paintings of Pygmalion and The Judgement of Paris and a Ford Madox Brown painting of the resurrection, which was Pre-Raphaelite in the original sense of the term, down to the saint’s halos. Most striking was Lord Leighton’s painting of Daedalus and Icarus, one of the very few depictions of male figures in Pre-Raphaelite painting (following my previous observations of his painting of Klytemnestra). A painting in the style of Salvator Rosa showed a set of proto-romantic ruins (albeit of classical structures). A staircase area, showed how considerable the wealth of the family must have been, judging by the paintings of family members by JW Waterhouse and of the grounds by Eric Ravilious. Maiolica pottery was kept nearby in cases while the family also apparently felt in need of an instrument linked to the house weathervane to tell them the wind direction. Finally, a sitting room contained a number of sculptures, from one of Napoleon to depictions of Michaelangelo’s David, Antinous and Bacchus (another motif throughout the house and gardens, with a certain theme beginning to spring to mind as a result).

"It is for this rare, precious quality of truthfulness that I delight in many Dutch paintings, which lofty-minded people despise… It is so needful we should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy and frame lofty theories which only fit a world of extremes. Therefore, let Art always remind us of them; therefore let us always have men ready to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things." – George Eliot

Visiting the current Jacob Van Ruisdael exhibition at the Royal Academy, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Seventeenth century Dutch painting tends to be noted for two mutually contradictory themes; firstly, the detailed realism of its depiction of lower and middle class subjects and secondly the allusive and symbolic quality of the painting. It’s an awkward arrangement, given that there is no meaningful way to discern a distinction between the portrayal of an object (skulls and bones or broken tree stumps, for example) and any symbolic significance to it as memento mori. The argument runs that the Netherlands was primarily an empirical and descriptive culture, whose fascination with maps and microscopes had more bearing than the moralising of emblem books; nonetheless, the influence of Calvinism created fertile conditions for musings on predestination. Equally, the argument runs that the realism of Dutch painting was often tailored to the tastes of equally increasingly wealthy middle-class consumers; the marble floors that are widespread in Vermeer’s paintings were only aspirational in practice, humorous depictions of peasants smoking tobacco went out of fashion once smoking became fashionable for urban consumers.

To some extent, much of Ruisdael’s work does furnish material for this debate. One painting in particular, The Jewish Cemetery, is clearly used to offer an allegorical fable; a cemetery is set in a wild forest, next to a set of ruins and a broken tree stump (similarly, his picture of the prosperous town of Egmond shows the road to it dominated by a dead elm tree). Above, the clouds part to offer the possibility of an after-life; such was at least Goethe’s interpretation, who assumed the ruins to be of cathedrals. In fact, they are of a ruined castle while the graves are those of the Jewish cemetery (which was near the Oude Kirk in what is now Amsterdam’s red light district), which upsets the christian interpretation somewhat. Similar issues occur for The Reconstruction of the Manor Kostverloren; the name meant ‘Money down the drain,’ owing to the fact that the Manor’s position in marsh land left in permanent need of repair, so that the repainting of the ruined walls and nearby bathers have led the painting to be interpreted as an allegory of the folly of human vanity.

Conversely, the realism of Ruisdael’s paintings can be questioned. Ruisdael’s work was highly influential on later painters like Gainsborough and Constable and he often shares with them an idealised and rather Arcadian portrayal of the countryside (though this is difficult to read; windmills may look picturesque to a modern viewer but they were simply agricultural and industrials tools at the time). However, Ruisdael does show aspects of work in the country, like the bleaching and laying out to dry of cloth in the fields or peasants at work in the fields (albeit he avoids anything too degraded, such as a dairy, preferring haymaking scenes). Equally, although he did paint scenes of town-life, they tends to be panoramas of Amsterdam’s spires and windmills rather than showing domestic life.

One of the more interesting aspects to his work lies with how realism can be questioned in other ways; in spite of the influence on Gainsborough and Constable, much of his work looks more like the work of a nineteenth century romantic painter. For example, a painting of Bentheim castle has Ruisdael placing it high up on cragged hills to emphasis what would later have been called the sublime aspects of the work. In reality, the castle occupied no such vantage point. Ruins form an important theme for Ruisdael, as with those in The Jewish Cemetery and depictions of Egmond Castle ruins alone, another theme that would become a standard romantic trope. Most striking is a ruined castle high up above a river in valley filled with pine trees; the scene is set in Norway, a country Ruisdael had never visited and which seems to have served as an strange otherplace for him. The aforementioned painting of The Reconstruction of the Manor Kostverloren is perhaps unique in his work for resolving many of these contradictions; the scene is a wild wood, dominated by a ruined castle. But the scene also shows bathers in the castle moat and builders working on the reconstruction; to some extent it does show how the allegorical themes of Dutch painting (transience, sinfulness and mortality) dovetail well with incipient Romantic themes of decay.

Leaving the exhibition, I went for now seems a customary walk around London, starting at (the rather disconcertingly two-dimensional) Christchurch in Spitalfields (the shardlike exterior is more than usually worth looking at: walking to the side of this it all becomes quite two-dimensional, like a cut-out), to the Gherkin building and St Botolph’s church and down to The Monument. Here I finally found the ruins of St Dunstan in the East. One of Wren’s churches built after the great fire, the roof was bombed in the blitz and the building remains a ruin. As this was one of Wren’s attempts at gothic, decay seems to become it, with the walls and spire still standing while the interior was been turned into a garden; water trickles from a fountain while blue pansies flower where the pulpit would have been; a haven of peace and serenity. While I tend to think of a building like Lichfield Cathedral as a good example of gothic (due to the darkness of the stone), I have to admit that the white Portland stone works well here; the delicate vaulting almost looks like bleached bones. It is, however, rather odd to look through the empty gothic arches and see banana trees and magnolias.

The BBC recently broadcast an interesting documentary about Vivaldi’s relationship with the Ospedale della Pietà, a Catholic orphanage intended to house the girls begotten by the various dalliances of the Venetian aristocracy. Vivaldi taught many of them to play the violin and oversaw their productions, where even the bass parts may have been sung by women. The documentary was followed by a performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria in the Pietà (albeit a slightly later and larger building than the one Vivaldi would have been familiar with), following from the recreation of Handel’s Water Music they did a couple of years ago on a barge on the Thames. Unlike an English choir, the singers were dispersed throughout various upper galleries and largely hidden behind metal screens (the effect alternately being that of a prison or a confessional). It rather reminded me of an organ performance I went to in one of Prague’s churches, where since the organists was hidden from view there was no visual focus to associate the sound with; the sound seemed to come from everywhere.

To Catch A Thief turned out to be much glamorous and exotic than most of Hitchcock’s fare (and consequently less dark) but was refreshingly free of the cod-Fredianism Hitchcock was somewhat prone to. Instead, Cary Grant’s Rafflesian anti-hero is shameless about his kleptomania. By contrast, The Titfield Thunderbolt, is an Ealing comedy about a English country village struggling to defend its railway in the face of the rise of the automobile and the bus. The idea of the harbinger of the industrial revolution as a symbol of English pastoralism seems more than a little odd to me but I did especially like a scene where the villagers gloomily realise that the railway is making a profit and is consequently at risk of nationalisation…

When I reviewed Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop a while ago, I recall noting how Oxford as a place seems antagonistic to realism, with crime and fantasy its dominant literary modes (the latter paradoxically being the more realist of the two). Similarly, Philip Pullman once spoke of how the river’s mists have a solvent effect on reality. The latest book to fit this thesis is Guillermo Martinez’s The Oxford Murders, a piece of crime fiction whereby all the murders are made to conform to a mathematical series. Hindered by Wittgenstein’s finite rule paradox and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, predicting the series is essential to solving the crimes. The mathematical conceit is welcome in so far as it places the novel more in the tradition of literary puzzles preferred by Doyle and Chesterton than to Christie’s social conservatism, but it does leave the book with a somewhat abstract and inconsequential aspect that seems a little unpalatable when the novel comes to depict some of the deaths.

I rather liked last year’s BBC remake of The Quatermass Experiment, largely for its eschewal of special effects and actions in favour of drama and dialogue. Accordingly, I was interested in a similar remake of A for Andromeda (in spite of not having realised before that it was written by the somewhat crankish Fred Hoyle). On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised by how easily it kept pace with the intervening decades (albeit with some rewriting), with the idea of self-aware computers chime with recent discussions of the singularity. Similarly, the growing of synthetic organisms was followed this week with the announcement of human organs being manufactured.

The most striking aspects is that where science fiction often depicts alien intelligence as having an utter reliance on logic that will leave them wide open to any strategy involving improvisation or instinct. By contrast here, it is made clear here that a superior intelligence will necessarily displace a lesser, with only the anomaly of Andromeda’s humanity preventing it on this occasion. In that sense, it reminded me of HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds; "We men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us… And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years."