Palladianism

Stowe’s landscape gardens were designed to reflect the Whiggish views of Viscount Cobham, representing allegory as architecture. It coincidentally depicts a palimpsest of architectural and garden design, with the move from Baroque to Palladian and Augustan styles and from thence to Brown’s Serpentine designs. I feel ambivalent on several scores, preferring the Gaudiesque playfulness of Hawksmoor or Wren to the classically correct Palladian style embraced by Burlington and Kent, whilst the continent preferred rococo. Palladianism was closely associated with the Whigs and Kent’s designs follow that (although the relationship was fraught; Kent’s Augustan style followed a Roman model that was redolent of Roman tyranny rather than Greek liberty, hence the subsequent Greek Revival and James Stuart), depicting figures revered in the Whig tradition like Locke, Socrates and Milton. Conversely, the Tory Gibbs preferred the Baroque style and built an early example of the gothic revival from ironstone that is common in this part of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. Gothic was justified as being suggestive of the country’s Germanic heritage and commitment to liberty. As was common for early gothic revival buildings, it doesn’t look as if Gibbs was entirely sure of what gothic was or how to construct it; the capitals here look more Egyptianate than Gothic. Equally, Brown’s mimicry of natural landscapes is entirely dependent on the population of said landscape with various classical temples; I always feel I’d prefer the earlier formal style which admitted no division between nature and art. The grounds were at least home to a wide variety of nature outside of Brown’s tamed vistas; lilies, rabbits, copper beeches, squirrels, horse chestnut, coots and geese. This period was also that of the faked ruin and Stowe does have these (along with a Chinese house), but The Temple of Friendship was perhaps more interesting in this regard; it was originally inhabited and decorated and was only perserved as a ruin after a fire. There’s something particularly forlorn about its empty rooms, particularly given the surreal aspect given them by the retention of wooden doors and seats.

By contrast, Polesden Lacey is a more mannered affair, largely the creation of an ostentatious Edwardian heiress. The gardens combine formal planting with rock gardens and statues of griffins. The interior joins Edwardian ostentation (a saloon with the walls covered with gold gilt) with an antiquarian interest; Grinling Gibbons carving from an old Wren church, a picture gallery with a plaster ceiling in the style of a Seventeenth century long gallery. Each room is filled with Chinese or Imari vases, Maiolica plates, Ormolu clocks, Boulle and Chippendale furniture, Chinese lacquer and Persian rugs. Some Italian (though derived from Arabic) marquetry of walnut, bone and ivory was especially striking. The gallery is predminantly composed of Dutch (Velde seascapes, Ruisdael landscapes, a Van Der Neer frost fair) and Sienese altar paintings. It also included Corneille De Lyon miniatures and a Ter Borch painting showing an ambiguous scene wherein the characters seem to be playing out a moral fable (a brothel scene), something which typically tended to show low status characters but which here depicts recognisable middle and upper class figures. The gallery also contained a Roman sarcophagus, with elephants shown on its side.

Returning to Highgate, I found myself especially struck by the East Cemetery. When I last visited in Winter the grid plan this necropolis was laid out on was clearly evident and the place had a logical and orderly air to it. In summer, the trees had closen in and the paths beneath them seemed as hidden and secret as those in the West Cemetery. I look at gravestones shattered by ivy vines as thick as lianas, graves written in Arabic, Chinese and Hebrew, graves for obscure figures like magicians (the Human Hairpin) and forgotten inventors. Then there is Karl Marx, an anachronistic monument out of place in North London and out of time now that its kin have been pulled down in Eastern Europe. A single red flower rests on the mausoleum while a black cat flits quietly between the headstones. Within the West Cemetery foxgloves, roses and buttercups are flowering but the cover of the trees in full leaf only leaves the place more dark than on my previous visit in winter. It’s difficult not to feel like Alexander Humboldt or Frederick Catherwood. I hadn’t realised that this is one of the few places in London with a Giant Redwood. Monuments formerly surmounted by vases now witness them lying broken at their bases, crushed by bindweed.

Reading Museum is not especially noteworthy but it does have some interesting exhibits; green man capitals and animal voussoirs from Reading Abbey, black and white frets from Silchester, the Ogham stone, a Roman tombstone, an Iron age horse effigy and a head from a statue of the Egyptian God Serapis from a Silchester temple. At the time of visiting, the museum had an exhibition dedicated to Sir John Soane to coincide with the restoration of the Simeon Monument. Amongst other things it included various paintings by Joseph Gandy of the Bank of England. Reading Bach Choir also organised a set of peripatetic concerts, flitting from one Reading church to another. Beginning at St Giles (a high church interior filled with baroque monuments, paintings, Bavarian statues of st Mary, candles and Victorian mosaics of the saints) with Summer is Icumen in, then to St Mary’s (a former evangelical chapel with a beautiful stained glass simple with a tree design) and Benjamin Britten before finishing at Reading Minister (high church adornments mingling with Saxon arches) and Tallis.

The exhibition of John White’s drawings at the British Museum recalls Hakluyt’s complex descriptions of native cultures. It begins by showing White’s drawings of native cultures from Greece, Turkey and Uzbekistan as well as his Calibanesque imaginings of Pictish warriors. Many of his descriptions of Inuit and Algonquian Indians were to follow the same poses and tropes established by these depictions of savagery, most obviously in the scenes of violence shown with Frobisher’s encounter with the Inuit while searching for the North West passage. Nonetheless, his drawings were also intended to assuage such fears of hostile savages and encourage would be emmigrants to Roanoke, and veer between the depiction of noble savages (stressing their agrarian expertise in the growing of maize, their ordered villages and craftsmanship in kayak construction) and objects of curiousity (the skinning of their dead and entombment in special huts, the dances around totem poles surmounted by human faces while draped with tobacco leaves and depictions of cannibalism). The drawings consequently emerge as a form of prospectus, reflecting the linkage between commerce and colonialism that was to set the pattern for the British Empire. White also meticulously recorded the flora and fauna of the places he visited; pineapples, flying fish, jellyfish, plantains, crabs, hoopoes and scorpions while the exhibition also contains some excellent Hilliard miniatures and an appearance from John Dee’s scrying mirror (as well as a frontpage of a treatise on navigation showing Elizabeth at the helm of an exploring vessel, wherein Dee prepared the intellectual foundations for colonisation by using the term ‘British Empire’ for the first time).

Elsewhere in the V&A, an equally interesting exhibition on James ‘Athenian’ Stuart shows the drawings he and Revett made of buildings like the Temple of the Winds and the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, frequently showing both of them wearing Ottoman dress. As well as depicting the architecture Stuart also had an ethnographic care in depicting the people of Greece, their dress and habits. The background narrative of avoiding plague and brigands alike nearly obscure his architectural achievement but Stuart was the first person in centuries to design structures like censor tripods or doric temples, with the rest of the exhibition showcasing designs and artefacts from places like Kedleston, Shugborough and Nuneham Courtenay. Later, I noticed Rysbrack’s original statues of Thor and Sunna on display; if anything I preferred the weathered and encrusted copies that are still at Stowe.

Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939 is an uneasy compromise between realist and historical specificity on the one hand (in the vein of Solzhenitzyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) and an allegory that recalls La Peste, The Magic Mountain and The Trial (most obviously in the case of the two guards that come for Frau Zauberblit). As with the latter category of novel, Appelfeld deliberately isolates the events from their historical context, thereby implicity separating them from any meaning. The anomie and restlessness experienced by the inhabitants of Badenheim, whether manifested in a longing for the woods or for a Polish childhood, seems as generalised as the alienation experienced by Hans Castorp even if Appelfeld elsewhere identifies "a kind of neuroticism, a restlessness, a permanent alertness, a kind of insecurity" as an integral aspect of the Jewish consciousness. Equally, Appelfeld also elsewhere suggests that "a society without true roots is a society without a future…Without a deep belief, without a deep philosophy, mysticism, you cannot got through it." Nonetheless, the experience of collective memory in Badenheim 1939 is a deeply ambivalent one. For all of the scorn directed at self-loathing assimilated Jews who sneer at Buber and Herzl, the characters who embrace their Jewish identity most keenly in the novel are those that also embrace their journey to the Polish concentration camps. In a perervse sense the holocaust is envisaged as a form of pilgrimage, the longing for roots equating to a death drive in a way that perhaps recalls the exchange of European emnity for Arab emnity. The metonymic force of the novel is an undirected one that escapes the stark simplicity of the metaphor he employs of fish in the tank.

White’s The Vivisector is cast in the same vein as Mann’s Doktor Faustus and Bernhard’s Correction in exploring the idea of the artist as a Faust figure (in depicting the embalmed remains of a vivisected dog it even touches of similar themes to Correction where stuffed animals are emblematic of the blurred distinction between nature and art). The difference is that White also considers the artist as being akin to god ("Yes, I believe in him… othrwise how would men come by their cruelty – and their brilliance?"), who is often described as the divine vivisector, the same term White uses for Duffield. Elsehwere in the novel, the relevation of god’s purpose is through a wasp siting rather than by seeing eternity in a grain of sand. Art is a priestly function, of revelation ("the endlessly changing coloured slides in his magic lantern of a mind… were focussing into what might be called a vision.. these paintings are my revelations") but also of cruelty and dissection. In short, the faustianism is inverted, with christ and the devil being one and the same. This combination accountsfor the duality of Duffield as a character; he is often not consciously cruel to the people in his life. He is, for instance, horrified by Hero’s drowning kittens and sending her adopted child back to his poor parents, something that is deliberately counterpointed to the actions and attitudes of his own parents (who are nonetheless seeking to treat the child as a work of art, to be moulded or disfigured). Such describes the novel’s central fabula, but it is one complicated by class and repressed homosexuality. Caldicott and Cutbush represent the third sex, with the suggestion that the dislocation caused by their sexuality enables them to experience revelation. His liminal position between classes further displaces him from any sense of belonging.

Reading a selection of Emily Dickinson’s poems, I felt quite strongly that she reminded me of Hopkins in her approach to language, to sexuality and to religion. The principal difference seemed to be although her work can be viewed as having the concepts of instress and inscape implicit within it, her work has a rather more modernist approach to the role of literature and language. Her poems present a spectrum of views on this from the disavowal of art in I would not paint a picture and Drama’s vitallest expression is the common day to its elevation above nature in I reckon – when I count at all.

The Lives of Others is an anomaly, starting from the premise that East Germany was hospitable to art in a way that was not true for a unified Germany that lacked anything to believe in or to rebel against. It’s a premise that creates the drama while obviating historical accuracy. In practice, a Stasi agent would not have been assigned sole responsibility for such an operation and would not have been able to collude with his victims; in describing Wiesler as a good man the film does blur the distinction between perpetrator and victim. In a certain sense, there is even a sublimated homosocial love story between Wisler and Dreyman.

Although art if assigned a redemptive quality in the film (as with Wiesler’s reading of Brecht’s poetry, as his sterile life is counterpointed to Dreyman’s), its role is an ambiguous one. For example, the metaphor of acting permeates the script; the Stasi are seen as directors while the ketman practiced by the Easy Germans is characterised as acting. The main character uses this metaphor to persuade Christa to both be true to her husband and to betray him. As a consequence, few ideas presented in the film are seen as clear and stable; the communist bigwigs do not believe in communist ideology even as they enforce and abuse it (Margot Honnecker, gives Dreyman a book by Solzhenitsyn strictly prohibited to ordinary people), and even as Dreyman remains faithful to the cause. Fiction is repeatedly metamorphosed into the reality that originally produced it; the surveillance transcripts refer to an imaginary play and are then turned into a novel, undermining the role of art in bearing witness.

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