Kenilworth

I went to Brimingham in early December to visit its Christmas market – sadly locating the stall with the Reindeer burgers proved elusive. We also went round the Museum, looking at the Eginton and Pre-Raphaelite glass, Indian votive sculptures, Eptein sculptures, Pre-Raphalite and Italian paintings, the Staffordshire hoard exhibits, Egyptian mummies, De Morgan and Wedgewood ceramics. I also see inside the Hall of Memory for the first time, with its darkened interior illuminated by lamps and light pouring through the sole stained glass window and the new library. The library interior revolves around a central atrium, with a circular staircase winding its way upwards. The upper floors have a number of roof gardens from which you can see over most of Birmingham, while the top floor also has a viewing room. This is also where the Shakespeare memorial room can be found; I’m reminded of the experience of visiting the Adam dining room on the top floor of the Lloyds building.

At Christmas, I’m back up in the Midlands. I spend some time visiting some of the local churches listed by Simon Jenkins; Holy Angels in Hoard Cross with its German rood screen, Kempe stained glass and Victorian gothic, St Nicholas Mavesyn Ridware with its strange monuments of family members throughout the ages from the Norman conquest onwards and St Peter’s at Elford with its alabaster tombs. I also go for a walk on a beautifully sunny day at the National Memorial Arboretum where there’s a new (but not especially great) monument to the Christmas truce alongside a more striking Pegasus memorial to the Parachute regiment.

There was another brilliantly sunny day when I visited Kenilworth. It was a cold day and the ground was frosty, although there wasn’t too much snow. It’s now possible to go up a series of viewing platforms on the ruins of the keep as well as walking through the darkened chambers of the surviving buildings and walk around the outside of the castle walls. Given the size of the mere that would have originally surrounded the castle, I’m reminded of how the idea of Camelot influenced the design of medieval buildings like Dunstanburgh. Although not too spectacular at this time of the year, there’s also the recreated Elizabethan garden, with its Altante dominated marble fountain and wooden aviary. It seems a rather hyperreal idea, given that there are no detailed records of what the original garden looked like and this design is based on details from other period gardens. We also have a brief look at Kenilworth church with its Norman beakhead door before visiting the church at Berkswell, whose crypt divided between two chambers reminds me of Repton and Lastingham.

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Antiquarianism

This Easter saw my usual trip up to the Midlands, beginning with a visit to Kempley in Gloucestershire. A rather remote church that has lacked an accompanying village for hundreds of years, it’s sufficiently isolated for me to have heard cuckoo calls in the distance. The isolation of the building may well account for its interior, where medieval frescos survive on the walls and ceiling. A wheel of life fresco adorns one of the walls, while Jerusalem is depicted above one of the windows and seraphs line the ceiling flanked by apostles on either side of the chancel wall. Probably more than any other place I’ve been to in England, it does give a good sense of what the interior of a medieval church would have been like, excepting the rather odd presence of some Kempe stained glass in the windows. Next is Much Marcle in Herefordshire, a rather larger and more austere structure but whose interior includes a number of medieval monuments, including one in wood and gesso. Outside, an ancient yew tree has had a seat carved into its interior. Last on that day is the Rotherwas Chapel, a private Catholic chapel that has a medieval structure, an Elizabethan timber ceiling and Victorian finishings by EW Pugin, including the usual Minton tiles and stained glass showing St Winifrid.

The following day is given up with a visit to the Barber Institute in Birmingham, which is hosting a small exhibition of the Myers collection of Egyptian antiquities. The thing that most strikes me is a sculpture of Horus on horseback spearing Seth; inevitably it looks almost exactly like St George and the dragon. Similarly, a statue of Isis suckling Horus pre-empts the Virgin and child. The other exhibits are more what might be expected but are impressive nonetheless; Fayum mummy panels, painted Shabti, a sarcophagus lid, a Barbotine jar and a faience sistrum.

The next day takes me to Shropshire and to Tong. The church exterior is rather unusual; an octagonal tower surmounted by a spire. The interior is almost the match of a cathedral, being almost filled with large marble monuments. One particular monument to the church’s founder has a garland of roses applied around her effigy. Another one surmounted by a bronze relief includes a somewhat amateurish rendition of an elephant, presumably based solely on hearsay. A chantry chapel in the church proves most unusual; the fan vaulting on the ceiling still has medieval paint, as does the tomb effigy within it. The choirs seats also have a set of misericords, including a green man. I’m also lucky enough to be able to visit the church tower. I then head onto Attingham Park, a mansion designed by John Nash and featuring his usual range of embellishments. The entrance hall features a set of trompe l’oeil designs on the walls and leads directly through to the house art gallery, designed by Nash to have a conservatory style roof years before Paxton had the same idea (although Paxton’s didn’t leak), which then in turn leads directly through to a grand staircase, similar to the one I saw last year at Trinity House. The gallery is actually somewhat nondescript, save for a solitary Salvator Rosa painting. There are some interesting paintings by Hackert showing Pompei during its excavation and nearby Lake Avernus though. There are some impressive rooms by the original architect, Steuart, such as matching octagonal rooms for the Lord and Lady, both featuring delicate wall decorations.

On the way back, I stop off at Compton Verney. The gallery turns out to have a rather odd installation by the lake; a camera obscura within a large silver sphere. Inside, the first section showcases Neapolitan art, an interesting if somewhat peripheral subject. Most Neapolitan art bears Spanish influence as much as that of Italian sources like Caravaggio, with the result being a great many religious and mythological scenes characterised by the mixture of light and dark and loose brushstrokes. Very few of them are outstanding, so what proves more interesting are the Trapani coral sculptures, the various veduta scenes of the Bay of Naples or Paestum by the likes of Gaspar Von Vittel or various scenes of Vesuvius erupting by the likes of Grenier de Lacroix or Volaire, although neither quite match the Joseph Wright version of the same scene that I’d noticed a few days earlier at the Barber Institute. The next section on North European art is perhaps more successful, containing a number of Cranach paintings and a set of portraits. The British section is also heavily weighted towards portraiture, with various depictions of monarchs from Holbein’s school. Some of the orientalist portraits stand out; a Reynolds portrait of a merchant’s wife in Persian costume and a portrait of the Persian ambassador to the court of George the Third. The upper floors are mostly given over to a display of Chinese bronzes, equestrian figures, gilded heavenly kings and cloisonne enamel. The last thing I look at is a somewhat bizarre section on naval art; stitched depictions of ships embroidered by sailors who served on them.

I also look at some nearby places, like the church of St Leonard at Charlecote Park, a rather elaborate gothic revival building containing a number of funerary monuments as well as the somewhat unavoidable Kempe stained glass. The nearby church of St Peter, is another gothic revival building albeit one conceived on a significantly grander scale by Gilbert Scott; nonetheless the austerity of the design tends to lead me to prefer the smaller St Leonards. I also have a look round some places in Oxfordshire I’ve wanted to visit for sometime, beginning with St John the Baptist in Burford. This proves particularly worthwhile, beginning with a crowded churchyard filled with bale chests through to a higglepiggledy building that alternates romanesque and gothic. The interior proves as much of a gallimaufry, with a wooden chapel made up of medieval screens, a monument with elaborate painted weeper figures, another monument with Indian tribal figures, as well as the usual Kempe stained glass. Next is St Mary’s church at Fairford, a building mostly known for its surviving medieval stained glass showing the last judgement, although the churchyard proves to have a particularly odd tomb with Pharaonic atlantes at each corner. After that, I move onto St Mary at Kempsford. Although a medieval structure that retains a romanesque arch, it was extensively reworked by Street and counts as having one of the few Victorian renditions of the last judgement that I’ve seen. The crossing is probably the most striking feature, with elaborate heraldic designs emblazoned onto the ceiling. The penultimate place on my list is St George at Kelmscott, with its suitable combination of medieval frescos showing the fall and Morris tapestries. I pause at Morris’s grave outside before heading to my final destination; St Mary at Buckland. On this occasion, I was spared Kempe as the church instead contained a rather fine window by Henry Holiday, as well as a transept whose walls are covered in mosaics showing angels, as well as inserts showing ships and whales.

Midlandia

Travelling up the Midlands, I stop off at Wallingford. It’s not a place I knew a great deal about, other than the sight of Taylor’s rather bizarre church spire from afar. Up close, the Georgian spire is no less odd, contrasting with the flint walls and with the Morris and Company stained glass. The interior is dusty and covered in cobweb. Even if maintained, it still has the feel of a derelict building. The nearby castle is a more clear case of ruination, with ivy covering the ruined walls and with much of it partially flooded due to the recent rains. Although the sun shines brightly while I walk around, the wind is still bitingly cold. The weather remains rather cold for the season; the Hawthorn has only just come into leaf and daffodils have only just flowered. Unsurprisingly, the sun soon gives up its place to black cloud and rain, which sets the tone for the Easter weekend.

Arriving in the Midlands, we visit Aston. The church of St Peter and St Paul surprises us by being open; I feel smug at noting the resemblance to St Martin’s in the Bullring and guessing the hand of Chatwin behind the design. The interior is rather more ornate than St Martin’s though, with elaborate baroque wall monuments, alabaster tombs, wood carvings on the pews and a hefty amount of Victorian stained glass. As is usual for Birmingham, the exterior of the church and graveyard are black from decades of industrial pollution. Were they anywhere other than Birmingham the church and Aston Hall would count amongst Britain’s finest buildings; as it stands they seem rather forgotten, penned in by the motorway and surrounded by industrial decay. The hall is rather impressive though; the entrance hall is composed of trome l’oeil landscapes and a frieze of animals like elephants and unicorns. The Jacobean plaster ceilings and wooden carvings form a recurrent feature throughout the house. Rooms are given up to exhibits like stuffed tigers from the hall’s day as a Victorian museum, civil war weaponry from a roundhead siege and chinoiserie tapestries. In the afternoon, I move on to Matthew Boulton’s Soho House, a counterpart to a visit to the Erasmus Darwin house in Lichfield a few years ago. Seeing replicas of Priestley’s electricity generator, Boulton’s sidereal clock, Russell’s painting of the face of the moon (a painting that could easily pass for a photograph with considerable detail of the moon’s geography) or even Boulton’s central heating system in the cellar, it seems odd to think of Birmingham as a great centre of manufacturing for everything from ormulu to coinage; today this district is one of the most run down and crime ridden in the city. The pictures of Handsworth in the house also seem rather odd, showing an arcadian view of woodland from the house. There’s even a replica of Boulton’s wooden hermitage, something that must strikes a rather oddly romantic note in what is otherwise a history of the Enlightenment.

The following day is taken up with a visit to Hereford Cathedral. The Romanesque pillars and gothic ceiling rather remind me of Gloucester or Tewkesbury, although the stone is obviously rather more pinkish. There also seem to be a very large number of stone tombs, as well Kempe’s stained glass being opposed to Piper’s tapestries. I also rather like the font, mostly for the stone beasts it rests on. Fake medieval monuments for Etherlbert and St Thomas have been erected, in vivid colours and gold leaf; I can’t make up my mind whether this seems rather kitsch or not. The day after is given to a visit to Shugborough. Not exactly the National Trust’s most beautiful property, at least some of the follies are open. The Temple of the Winds proves to have an ornate ceiling and stained glass, while the Chinese House is decorated with chinoiserie scenes inside. I also don’t recall having seen the rather whimsical cat’s monument or a pair of Chinese dragons before.

The final day in the Midlands takes me to Derbshire and Chatsoworth, a place I hadn’t visited since I was a child. I walk along the river Derwent, past the ruined mill, towards the house, which is partially covered in scaffolding as the stone is cleaned and the window lintels gilded. I briefly look at Queen Mary’s Bower, a raised platform with what might have been a garden at the top, which probably wasn’t used as an exercise ground for Mary Queen of Scots. I’m amused to see a wolf statue next to the entrance, given the recent filming of the Wolfman remake here. I’d forgotten how ornate Chatsworth is; only the English would decide to remake Versailles in somewhere as bleak as the peak district; the Capability Brown landscape only serves to make the country look even more forlorn and devoid of life. I’d entirely forgotten how ornate Chatsworth is, with the staircases and chamber ceilings painted by Laguerre, Thornhill and Verrio, the walls lined with tapestries and cordovan, furniture by William Kent and limewood carvings by Grinling Gibbons. Classical statues line the walls; Sekhmet, Antinous, Hermes Roman gravestones and wunderkammeresque geodes, jewelled hawks, malachite clocks gifted by the Russian Tsar, Delft tulip vases and fossils. I particularly like one room with a fake door with a trompe l’oeil violin painted on it; fitting given that the paintings on all the walls and ceiling seem to challenge the normal two dimensions. The art collection is rather good, including Lucien Freud, Singer Sergeant, Pietro Annigoni, Panini, Millais Rembrandt, John Piper and Titian. Works by artists like Anthony Caro are dotted around the house. Unsurprisingly given the recent film, various pictures of Duchess Georgiana are in evidence, including the most famous by Joshua Reynolds. The sculpture gallery is filled with Canova, Thorvaldsen and Schadow, depicting Napoleon, Hadrian and Alexander while the grounds are filled with sculptures by Elizabeth Frink and a surprisingly good sculpture of Saint Bartholomew by Damien Hirst.

Walking round the grounds, past the Paxton greenhouses and Archer’s cascade, I notice some strange bright yellow arum lilies growing near a waterfall. A toad decides that its camouflage is sufficiently perfect that I cannot possibly be looking at it. A rather imperious rooster with orange feather tries to get out of the wind, with little noticeable success.

Einzelgängerheit

Returning to Hardwick Hall, I was struck by the forest-like character of the interior, with the main hall being decorated on all sides by painted plaster and tapestry hunting scenes showing wild stags, elephants and boars. Stags horns decorate the walls while a Hilliard school painting of Elizabeth produced at the hall shows her dress filled with sea monsters and birds; I am fire and air; my other elements I give to baser life. Outside, the entrance is dominated by the family crest of two stags, something that reminds me more of Schoenbrunn than England. The entrance hall doorway is flanked by two lionheads where hands holding torches force their way through the jaws. Nearby is the church of St John the Baptist, Ault Hucknall, where Thomas Hobbes is buried. The interior includes an elaborate Norman doorway (showing events from Genesis) in contrast to a simpler Saxon design, alabaster tombs, Green men heads on the rafters and a Norman depiction of George and the dragon outside. On the way back, I visit St Peter’s in Elford, noted for its medieval alabaster monuments but substantially reworked in the Victorian period with carved wooden angels and Minton tiling. I also look at Holy Angels in Hoar Cross, a strange isolated cathedral on a hilltop. The exterior is covered with dragon gargoyles and statues of the saints while the plain red sandstone interior is lined with elaborate stations of the cross and black and white tiling. Light thinly permeates through Kempe’s stained glass while the dark interior is illuminated by reflections from the gold rood screens. I also visited Letocetum, the remains of a Roman market and mansio near Watling Street, and a museum showing Samain ware, funerary urns and mosaics.

The following day I travelled to Birmingham, and to the Museum and Art Gallery there. I begin by walking round to Pugin’s cathedral, with its plain white interior and gold pillars, Flemish stations of the cross, medieval pulipt and statue of St Chad. I then visit St Philip’s cathedral, this time an exercise in baroque by Thomas Archer. Much of the older gravestones remain, while the bright interior is darkened somewhat by a set of oppressive blood red Burne Jones stained glass windows. There is also the newly restored town hall and Chamberlain memorial. Finally, there is St Martin’s church, a Victorian reconstruction of a medieval church. The exterior almost crawls with gargoyles, while the interior is as stark as that of Holy Angels, save for the wooden angels lining the ceiling. Again, the stained glass is by Burne Jones.

Burne Jones also proves a prominent subject at the art gallery. A grand piano decorated by Burne Jones with a pattern of golden flowers forms the centrepiece of an exhibition dedicated to him. Other exhibits include a golden chest decorated with a picture of the Garden of Hesperides, as well as the paintings. I tend to think of Burne Jones as being a little too ennervated, denuded of drama and while I can’t say I’ve changed my mind on the basis of what I’ve seen, the variety of works from famous paintings like Pygmalion and the Image, Phyllis and Demophoon (an unusual depiction of male sexuality) and King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid to more obscure works like Star of Bethlehem and The Merciful Knight was impressive. The collection has a substantial number of pre-Raphaelite works, such as Simeon Solomon’s ephebian Bacchus and Frederick Sandys’s Medea, shown against a gold background in the manner of an Orthodox icon. Although the collection has some good Rossetti paintings, most of it is taken up with Ford Madox Brown (represented by Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus and The Finding in the Saviour of the Temple, both showing a combination of mythical subjects, artifical tableaux and saturated colours that are more appropriate to his allegorical paintings like The Scapegoat), William Holman Hunt (the most succesful works here, combining social realism with the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic in paintings like The Last of England and An English Autumn Afternoon) and Arthur Hughes (the beautifully detailed Long Enagagement, where the ivy is perhaps more succesfully shown than the characters). Other striking exhbits included some minor Watts paintings,. Fitzgerald’s Bosch like fairy paintings of the death of Cock Robin, a William Burges marble table, De Morgan Lustre ware, Ruskin pottery and a marquetry table by Pugin as well as some Victorian landscapes like Leader’s February Fill Dyke.

The rest of the collection is also quite strong, containing Botticelli’s The Descent of the Holy Ghost and Bellini’s The Madonna and Child, woodcuts by Ernest Heckel and Gauguin, Degas’s A Roman Beggar Woman and Pisarro’s The Boieldieu Bridge, as well as a museum containing an Egyptian statue of Isis, Peruvian moche pots, Ninevehan ivories, Pakistani shields and helmets and Pagua New Guinean funerary sculpture. The museum also houses a number of Egyptian mummies I recall being terrified by as a child, and a set of Buddhas, including the Sultanganj Buddha. There’s also an exhibition of Islamic Khatam marquetry. Returning to the South of England, I called in at Nuneham Courtenay and the chapel there designed by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, featuring beautiful marble statues and wrought iron across the windows.

Revisiting Winchester, I found that the cathedral in particular had a great deal that I hadn’t seen on my last visit. Combining Norman, Gothic and Victorian architecture with an interior that mixes Medieval and Tudor, it’s one of the most eclectic and fascinating cathedrals (Victorian mosaics sit alongside English baroque). I hadn’t been to the Morley library before, which I recognised as the setting for a television adaptation of an MR James story from last christmas. Mostly though the wooden bookcases and globes reminded me of the library at Strahov Monastery in Prague. The cathedral also has a collection of medieval bibles, showing the brilliant illuminations for chapters like the Song of Songs. The Triforium Gallery also proved interesting, containing a set of painted wooden states of King James and King Charles (peppered with gunshot either due to the puritans or to extreme measures taken against pigeons) and a set of medieval mortuary chests. I also visited the crupt and found myself rather impressed by Anthony Gormley’s statue in the flooded cavern. I found myself particularly impressed with the medieval tiling and fifteenth century murals in the Lady Chapel, where devils are shown plaguing men, as well as by the well preserved chantry chapels and twelfth century wall and ceiling paintings in the Holy Sepulchre Chapel (the depiction of Christ on the ceiling being one of the most Byzantine things I can recall in an English cathedral). Some of the side chapels have Burne Jones stained glass. Finally, I noted Scott’s designs for the Wilberforce tomb; some angels hold the sun and the moon, while another, recalling earlier tomb designs, holds a skull. I also went to the city museum, and was struck by a perfectly preserved Roman mosaic, showing a star at the centre and a swastika pattern bordering it to represent the heavens.

Visiting London, I began by finding the church of St James the Less, a polychromatic redbrick affair by GE Street. The gothic exterior with its three spires on the tower is striking enough, though the interior contains frescos by GF Watts and red and white brick. Walking onwards, I arrive at the Tate for its Hogarth exhibition. Hogarth is the most writerly of painters, fitting into the narrative of Defoe and Fielding rather better than that of Kneller. As a painter, Hogath veers between attempting something in the manner of Kneller or Caneletto, only to return to something more in the mode of Gilray. Hogarth’s satire seems partly motivated by moralism, castigating the sins of the decadent sity of London and partly by a more carnivalesque spirit (most clear in his painting of Falstaff as a subject) which opposes the raucous spirit of the city to foreign cosmopolitanism and native gentility alike. The most revealing examples of this lie with his society portraits. Hogarth is unable to show a group of companions without including a clergyman about to topple over from the chair he stands on. When showing a family in a rural idyll, he cannot but include some peasants having sex atop a haystack in the background. His engraving of an Italian musician shows him enraged by the sounds emanating from the streets outside his window, spiting Hogarth’s principal object of cultural hatred. Many of his paintings include cats and dogs (something he has in common with earlier Dutch painting and later Victorian works like Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience) introducing a note of anarchy into the most courtly scenes; a cat looking intently at a caged bird or a monkey dressed in a wig and about to give a singing recital. As such, there’s a certain ambivalence in his satrical works; The Four Stages of Cruelty traces a path from childhood cruelty to animals to criminality but notes society’s cruelty in its dissection of the hanged man’s corpse. Crime is seen as something socially sanctioned, with Gin Lane and Beer Street showing the same vices in London poor and London rich alike; the same ideas about crime and capitalism that Brecht saw in Gay are also present in Hogarth. Before leaving, I visit the Museum of Garden History, mostly to see the Tradescant and Bligh tombs, but I was also struck by ‘The Lamb of Tartary,’ an example of a plant from central Asia, which Hans Sloane believed to grow sheep as its fruit. In fact it’s a rhizome; a species of fern.

Dulwich park is as pleasant as Battersea, with Hepworth’s Double Form overlooking the lake while Pochard and Mandarin ducks swim across. In the nearby picture gallery, I found myself especially impressed with the Canaletto exhibition. Canaletto emerges as an architectural fantasist as much as Piranesi or Whistler, rearrnaging or even inventing building and landscape alike. The effect of this is amplified by the distance in time; London is shown with Westminster Abbey and Hall towering over all with a lacunae where the modern Houses of Parliament would be. A wooden obelisk owned by the waterworks stands where Cleopatra’s Needle is now. Somerset House is designed by Ingio Jones, not William Chambers. Several paintings show the interior of the vanished Ranelagh rotunda. In one picture, the distance between St Paul’s and the Monument is extended far off into the distance. Particularly fascinating is the attitude to ruins. His pictures of English landscapes show buildings designed in the neo-classical style by Robert Adam alongside Capability Brown’s replacement of formal gardens with proto-romantic parkland. The remains of Warwick Castle show it being reinvented in the gothick style with arched windows being added with brightly painted white panes. Of greatest interest are his fantasies, showing ruined classical architecture like the Colosseum and the alongside its modern, Palladian counterparts in pristine form. The romanticism is muted, with the depiction of the ruins tending to pastoral rather than the sort of work that came from Friedrich later. Nonetheless, Canaletto does bestride the classical and the romantic as much as he foreshadows the postmodern character of Victorian architecture with its pastiching of Classical, Gothic, Egyptian and even Byzantine architecture.

Visiting Ashdown House, I was again struck by the contrast between the genteel Dutch influenced architecture and the tragic aspect of its narrative, of a family forced into exile, first from Bohemia and then from England. The house towers over the landscape, which is neatly bissected by tree avenues and formal gardens but the prospect is nonetheless a lonely one of empty downland populated by sheep and sarsen stones. The inner stairwell only complicates the iconography of the place, filled with family paintings of the Winter Queen and Prince Rupert, and with classical busts of Hermes, Apollo and Athena. Travelling back via Donnington Castle, I arrive at Basildon Park. Again the genteel Palladian architecture belies a narrative based on colonial greed and I find myself more drawn to the broken classical statues at the back of the house.

I’ve written before about the implication of Romanticism in Knut Hamsun’s Nazism and this is something that occurs to me once more as I read Growth of the Soil. To some degree, "Growth of the Soil" is a Norwegian anticipation of the phrase “Blut und Boden” (blood and soil) by the German author Walther Darre, often used by Hitler to assert that "pure-blooded" Germans have the exclusive right to occupy "German" soil. French fascists in World War II would also embrace the mythology of the soil; The Nazi collaborator Marshal Pétain said, "La terre ne ment pas!" ("The soil does not lie!") Isak is portrayed as having a spiritual kinship with nature that insulates his from the moral decadence that comes from the cities; "The land saved him. If he had lived down in the village, maybe the great world would have affected even him… here in the wilds he was sheltered from al immoderation." Similarly, Elesus is described as "blemished.. warped" by his time in town. The soil is seen as central to the national life, a concept of gemeinschaft. The one point this becomes explicit is less than edifying; "he’s the modern type, a man of our time; he believes enough all the age has taught him; all the Jew and Yankee have taught him." Conversely, Inger’s killing of her child as well as that of Barbro are acts fitting for a state of nature, reflecting a certain suspicion of the feminine.

Reading Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden, I was surprised to note how many features of Western literature that would have been unavailable to Tsypkin were mirrored in it. The prose style flows on with little interruption from sentence or paragraph, recalling both Woolf and Bernhard, as it blurs the distinction between narrator and character, between past and present. There’s an escapist element to this, with the Jewish Tsypkin speaking of days when Russian Jews would travel to Germany. Tsypkin places himself in the cosmopolitan tradition of Turgenev at a time when such cosmopolitanism was impossible. The novel even resembles a Turgenev novel, showing its protagonist defeated by the land he has travelled to. But the protagonist is Dostoevsky not Turgenev and the land is Germany, not Russia. Towards the end, Tsypkin writes "why was I so strangely enticed and attracted by the life of this man who despised me and my kind?" Tsypkin is attracted to Dostoevsky’s sensitivity to oppression and suffering but repulsed by his nationalism and fanaticism, representing a dialogue about Tsypkin’s own ambivalent relationship to a motherland he had sought to leave.

Writing about Calvino, David Mitchell pondered why writers that write about writing are accused of creative onanism while no such charge is laid against painters who paint their own portraits. For all of the eloquence of the case for the defence, Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller seems entirely open to that particular charge. Calvino’s novel is hermetic, an endogeous system that admits of no external reference point, pointing to a wordlessness beyond language only to subsequently withhold it; "for what it reveals and even more for what it hides… the silent language to which all the words we believe we read refer." As books cannot contain totality, the only way to point to the unwritable is by writing the books of all possible authors. Equally, if there is no meaning beyond language, then all meanings become possible; "the former are convinced that amongst the false books flooding the market they can track down the few that bear a truth… the latter believe that only counterfeiting, mystification, intentional falsehood can represent absolute value." The novel accordingly simultaneously foregrounds the idea of an author behind the text while dispersing it ("I am an author who can be faked"), emphasises the idea of reading as a form of abandonment based on trust, only to deliberately challenge it through the repeated abortion of the narratives, to the chagrin of the characters ("behind the written page is the void").

After London by Richard Jeffries is oddly reminiscent of JG Ballard’s depictions of heroes setting out into the heart of entropy (in this context, the fetid ruins of a drowned London) but in its context is perhaps more notable for its depiction of a fedual world that challenges the romanticisation of the medieval period in the works of Walter Scott and the Pre-Raphaelites (or indeed Morris and News from Nowhere) by describing that world as essentially totalitarian, nasty and brutish. Jeffries seems to a large extent to take an egalitarian view, showing his noble forced to learn from the lower orders only to resile from that by allowing his nobility and learning to ultimately win through.

Balzac’s The Chouans presents an early stage in his career, which had more in common with Scott and Fenimore Cooper than Dickens or Zola. Although depicting its characters through the lens of historical and social change, it nonetheless also seeks to displace them from history by dislocating the narrative into a setting at a remove from historical events. Balzac instead emphasises that the Bretons are savages, the product of nature rather than civilisation. The novel is also interesting for decentering its focus from the aristocratic hero, an equivalent to Darnay or Blakeney, to its heroine, Mademoiselle Marie de Verneuil. Marie is one of the most striking characterisations of women in Victorian fiction, holding her opponents prisoner with a gun, wielding a dagger and commanding the Republican soldiers. Whereas many Victorian novels dichotomise the angel and whore, Balzac avoids this, although he still makes her a creature of emotion rather than reason; "Angel and demon you said and you were right… there is this to be said for women, that they never consider the rights or wrongs of their most reprehensible actions; they are governed by feeling."

Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr presents a familiar exercise in Romantic aesthetics; the narrative consists of a series of fragments designed to be able to intuit a transcendental whole. The text repeatedly references the idea of doubles; "I then fell into a state that, dividing my self in a curious way from my self, yet seemed to be my real self… his own self walking beside him.. I and my doppelganger… a dreadful doppelganger once looked up at me from another lake." In that vein, the narrative also repeatedly draws chiastic oppositions between paired characters; Murr and Kreisler, Kreisler and Hector, Hector and Cyprian, Severino and Abraham and so on. Mirrors reccur throughout the text, while other oddities from electric shocks to Severino’s invisible girl continually draw attention to the noumenal. Nonetheless, the narrative also emphasises what is hidden, decentering the aesthetics of the sublime in favour of a focus on the unconscious and dreadful that were to be the hallmarks of the gothic genre. This tends to introduce a polyponic aspect to the text, as with Ponto’s telling and re-telling of the story of Walter and Formosus from a different angle. The narratives of Kreisler and Murr are themselves most obviously counterparted in a parodic and carnvilesque fashion, the relationship between the two resembling that of Jacques and his master (although it could also be said that Murr serves to parody the Romantic ideal of the artist in much the same way as Swift used the Yahoos).

Although the likes of Tennyson, Scott and Rossetti had made the medieval a familiar figure in English literature and art, the same cannot be said on the whole for French literature. An exception is Huysman’s The Cathedral, which establishes an uncertain analogy between the symbolism of medieval art and that of the likes of Mallarme, uniting both against a materialist world of appearances; "the whole cycle of mysticism… the essence of the Middle Ages… the Middle Ages knowing that everything is a sign and a figure, that the only value of things invisible is that they correspond to things invisible… men were not, as we, the dupes of appearance." Nontheless, the text objectifies this symbolism, preferring to offer a disquisition on symbolism than to simply represent the objective correlative itself. In part, this seems due to a dissociation of sensibility that Huysmans blames the church for; "the instinctive aversion for art, the tupe of ideas, the terror of words, peculiar to Catholics." Durtal consequently bemoans the irrelevance of the church to all modern artistic developments, castigating newer churches as empty and being without soul and a product of anomie he himself suffers from ("the American abominations of the day… a Parisian who likes his city so little he seeks out the most deserted nooks to live in… but when he has a chance of improving on this scheme of existence… he shies and kicks"). Consequently, the novel depicts Durtal progressing from black mass to monastery to cathedral to monastery without rest, unable to form his own system of symbolism behind appearances, unable to complete his text.

Tate Modern

I recently decided to pay a visit to the Tate Modern. Having been assailed with recommendations of the gallery from all quarters, I was somewhat disconcerted to find myself standing outside a somewhat austere building that was certainly imposing in terms of scale, but not, in all honesty, not quite the architectural treasure I had been led to expect.

Nonetheless, stepping inside the vast turbine hall of the building did a great deal to correct this initial apprehension. In particular, the black girders that line the walls have the unsettling ability to make the building look like a post-industrial Acropolis. One of the features of this hall, is the illuminated viewing gallery, which runs along the entirety of the first storey. Within this, the Tate have provided armchairs and footstools, and one begins to realise that the purpose of the building is not to house artworks, it is to be an artwork in its own right, furnishing visitors with far more opportunities to gaze at it than it affords any of the exhibits.

Nonetheless, many of the exhibits are really very impressive, with the gallery
housing works by Pollock, Hepworth, Picasso, Dali (including the lobster phone) and Matisse. Perhaps more to the point, it also houses Marcel Duchamp’s
notorious urinal, a genuine urinal that Duchamp had simply signed and entered into an exhibition. This was a radical and subversive act on the part of Duchamp, but one which lost all potency as soon as it was repeated. Nonetheless, it is truly the spiritual antecedent of many of the other works in the building, many of which aspire to subvert the conservative notion of art rather than seeking to create it. The most obvious example would be Tracey Emin’s disarrayed bed, which became an artwork solely by virtue of being placed inside an art gallery. When such works set out to be deliberately transgressive, it seems to me to be somewhat unreasonable of the arts establishment to seek to dismiss the view that many people may not consider such works to be art at all. An arbitrary definition of art may prove better than not at all. However, if, as DuChamp insisted, this is the art where all one has todo is point one’s figure at an object and declare it to be art, then it is surely equally reasonable to assert that if anything may be regarded as art, then, by the same token, nothing is art.

An interesting contrast to this was afforded by the more traditional environs of Birmingham’s museum and art gallery, an elaborate example Victorian architecture, in stark contrast to the ‘soviet realism’ that pervades much of the city’s skyline. In comparison to the nearby Barber Institute, the exhibitions lack any unifying theme, ranging from excellent exhibitions on surrealism (the paintings by Conroy Maddox and John Melville being particularly noteworthy) and the pre-raphaelites (certainly rather better than the portraits within the Ashmolean, with many famous works by Burne Jones and Ford Maddox Brown, as well as comparatively obscure artists like Simeon Solomon) to lacklustre and rather pointless collections of contemporary ephemera, such as Rubik cubes and Versace dresses. The collection held by the Ashmolean is rather smaller, but does have the advantage of being displayed alongside assorted esoteric artefacts, such as a marble tablet depicting the enochian alphabet developed by John Dee.