Gleaming Vanes

"High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam

Islanded in Severn stream;

The bridges from the steepled crest

Cross the water east and west." (AE Housman)

Shrewsbury is one of the best preserved towns in England, with streets lined with half-timbered buildings (one of them stayed in by Henry prior to the Battle of Bosworth Field), a castle on a hill and a profusion of churches from a number of a variety of different periods. Outside the town and besides the Severn lie the remains of the old Benedictine monastery (including a rather eeriely isolated refectory pulpit standing outside) and the present Abbey. The red sandstone exterior left me rather reminded of Hereford. The interior remains largely gothic, with the remains of St Winfrid’s shrine having an orthodox icon of the saint by them (it’s not really my sort of reading but I did always rather like the alternative story of Winifrid’s arrival in Shrewsbury from A Morbid Taste for Bones), Tudor and Norman tombs, Norman remains, a font made from an upended Roman column as a font and Victorian reredos depicting Winifrid.

Within the town lies the church of St Mary the Virgin, with the third largest spire in England (half of it from the original sandstone, the rest much later). This is one of the most impressive churches that I’ve seen; the windows are filled with 13th to 16th century stained glass from Belgium and Germany, purchased at the same time as the Lady Chapel of Lichfield Cathedral. The ‘Tree of Jesse’ window showing Edward the Third is 14th century, Saxon tomb slabs, the floor is covered with Minton tiles, while the wooden ceiling is filled with elaborate angel carvings. Nearby is the more modest St Alkmund, a Victorian church with a painted East window and St Chad, a baroque round tower church with a circular nave. Outside, yellow and red leaves had fallen and covered the ground around the large tombs. Over the road is a park with a classical war memorial containing a statue of the angel Gabriel. Past a statue of Darwin outside the library, lie the remains of the castle, as red as the Abbey. A tower built by Thomas Telford when an earlier part of the structure collapsed stands overlooking the river. Down in the town, the museum houses a number of interesting exhibits from the Roman city of Virconium (Wroxeter), including soldier’s gravestones (originally garishly painted) and Samian wear.

Elsewhere, St Michael’s in Lichfield is set in one of the largest graveyard in the country. Though it lacks the elaborate tombs in the London Victorian cemetery, one of the larger tombs had it’s own clock and gas supply to light it up. St Mary and St Hardulph, or Breedon on the Hill, is siutated atop a hill above the surrounding plain. Originally, the site of a Monastery, the largely Norman church is notable for its extensive Saxon carvings; an angel like the one at Lichfield, Vine scroll above the altar and Anglian beasts. Seventeenth century slates tombstones line up in the windswept churchyard, each decorating with elaborate neo-classical etchings that have survived well. A Tudor family memorial depicts the deceased at prayer as well as showing a skeletal corpse beneath. A wooden pew surives that served as the box for the local gentry during services. Nearby is St Michael and St Mary at Melbourne, a Norman cathedral in miniature, with thick columns and round arches supporting a gallery that runs the length of the church. A wonderful medieval mural of the devil survives on one of the walls, near to columns where Saxon carvings of animals remain, including a Sheela-na-gig, a pagan fertility symbol. Further on is St Mary at Tutbury, a rather more restrained affair which does nonetheless have an extraordinary Norman arch in alabaster (another shows scenes of boar hunting). Finally, I had been to Repton before, but was interested to note the same slate tombstones outside and the statue of St Wystan bearing a metal sword above the door.

Autumn is my favourite time of year, with the world transfigured with green thoughts to shades of bronze, gold and burgundy and where the fallen leaves are suddenly siezed and thrown through the air by the unseen force of the wind. I think what I increasingly like about looking at buildings and the natural world is a sense of transfiguration, something similar to Shklovsky’s concept of ostranenie translates as ‘making strange.’ I think of how buildings take on different characters in different lights, of how the fog I can currently see from the window makes the innocuous and familiar sinister and hidden, of how autumn leaves transform the living into something artificial. Autumn has come late this year and it still feels more like October than November. Travelling into London to the Velasquez exhibition at the National Gallery, the sun is bright and the air still seems gentle. The exhibition itself shows Velasquez as a consummate realist, concerned with the mundane in his genre paintings (in spite of the number of religious or mythical subjects), while also continually suggesting, as with Foucault’s analysis of Las Meninas, the limits of representation, as with the two kitchen scenes shown here where christ is seen as being somewhere else beyond everyday concerns. The same applies to The Rokeby Venus, where the mirror image only shows a dim reflection of Venus and one that is at the wrong angle (although most of the portraits show the subject facing the viewer, Velasquez also has his sibyl turned away and hidden). Two other small exhibitions were being held, of Cezanne and Dutch winter scenes. The former seems striking for Cezanne’s almost cubist approach to nature painting while the highlight of the latter was Jan Beerstraten’s The Castle of Muiden in Winter and Avercamp’s Scene on the Ice Near Town. Elsewhere within the gallery, I walked through the Sainsbury wing, responding to the colours, but as ever, finding it hard to respond to the subject matter of works like The Wilton Diptych, until we come to the lascivious mythological painting of Florentine artists like Botticelli, Di Cosimo (though a Crivelli altarpiece with real jewels and gold embedded in it was rather striking), Cranach’s Greek allegory of Cupid Complaning to Venus and Venetian portrait painters like Bellini’s portrait of The Doge Leonardo Loredan. Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait also stands out for me and I next visit the Dutch section, with its Vane De Velde maritime paintings, De Hootch allegories (although he always seems more amused at vice than outraged) or Ruisdael landscapes. Other striking works included Moroni’s aristocratic portraits set in the midst of ruins and Rosa’s proto-romantic scenes.

Like several other Icelandic sagas, Njal’s Saga depicts the conversion of Iceland to Christianity. Njal is himself shown as an unearthly figure gifted with second sight and whose death has all the hallmarks of a saint’s martyrdom. Zola’s Therese Raquin shows less of a conflict between physiological and environmental considerations than that seen in his later works, cleaving to a theory of the body as the wellspring of all action (Therese and Laurent do not act consciously but are instead two people, driven by their physiogonomy), something that looks back to the medieval humours and forward to Ballard’s instinct driven idea of consciousness rather than inahbiting a conventional idea of character. The results can be somewhat uncomfortable; Therese’s actions are attributed to her African blood. Nonetheless, Zola is far from being consistent in this regard; Therese speaks of having her upbringing made her into a hypocrite and liar, while Laurent’s suffering is seen to induce a change in his body and character, making him more nervous and feminine. While Laurent is held to act only out of fleshy desire, Therese is supposed to take pleasure in knowing why she acts. Their very guilt seems to product of consciousness rather than the instincts of the flesh, while such tropes as the ghost and their eventual suicide seem to suggest the structure of a moral fable.

The figure in the carpet is often cited as a characteristic of Jamesian fiction. The Europeans exemplifies this through the way it depicts its characters in relation to their environment (America and Europe) but elides description of those environments. Felix resembles a Turgenev protagonist while Eugenia resembles Flaubert’s most famous heroine. But both Turgenev and Flaubert depict their characters as part of a complex web of social relationships, while James only briefly limns such matters in. Whereas earlier novelists like Dickens and Eliot had assigned a deterministic element to a character’s environment, no such element exists for James whose characters are rather more unpredictable, with the lackadaisical Felix settling down while Gertrude discovers herself out of kilter with her home.