Burning the Clocks

It’s been a few years since I visited Brighton. It’s still a place I find confusing; Georgian exuberance and Victorian elegance combine in a city that looks more like a rougher version of Shoreditch or Camden than a normal English seaside town. I recall that last time I entirely forgot to visit the Victorian church of Saint Bartholomew. So, I start there this time; it’s a cavernous dark warehouse of a building with only a brightly decorated set of altars to light up the gloom of the largest nave in the country.

I then walk into the centre and visit the Museum. The main hall here is dedicated to design, featuring chairs by Dali, lamps by Edward James,  tables and vases by Lalique and ceramics by Ravilious. There’s also a wing with traditional British ceramics. Nearby is a small Egyptian gallery, featuring the inevitable Sarcophagus, Fayum portraits and Canopic jars. I especially like a lot of the world galleries, featuring Iranian ceramics, Malagan sculptures and Tatuana masks from New Ireland in Papua New Guinea.  The Performance gallery is also rather striking, with Punch and Judy puppets, Vietnamese water puppets, Indonesian shadow puppets, Japanese Noh masks and ballet masks by Andre Derain. The museum also has a Transology section, making it in the first museum I’ve visited with a parental guidance notice on the door, which covers aspects of trans life from Pride t-shirts to prosthetics and some rather grisly bottled body parts removed in surgery. The fashion section also features outfits and costumes from LGBT residents in Brighton. Lastly, the fine art gallery is rather small but does include a loaned copy of Holbein’s Lady with a Squirrel.  The sun is beginning to fade by the time I leave, so I go for a walk along the Pier and watch the sunset near the ruins of the West Pier.

Back home, I visit the Tate’s Burne Jones exhibition. There are inevitably a lot of paintings I’ve seen many times before here but several that I haven’t like his depiction of Circe or the complete cycle of his Perseus works, with some normal oil paintings, others rather iconographic style  works designed as friezes and others done against wood with silver and gold. Represented together, the series of wan, etiolated figures in his works take on a coherent set of themes, with women seen as sinister and threatening and men as passive and helpless. There are several paintings of men being grasped and held by women; in some male nudity proved controversial at the time. One of a mermaid dragging a drowning sailor downwards is unusual for the malevolent smirk on her face. The overall themes remind me of Swinburne and Simeon Solomon, as well as the influence on decadent artists like Fernand Khnopff.

The following weekend, I visit the Royal Academy. For some unexplained reason there’s a copy of the Bates Motel in its front courtyard. I initially visit its Oceania exhibition. Covering a huge range of Islands and cultures, it does rather lack any great amount  of detail, covering boats, deities, weapons and housing. I find I recognise quite a lot of the exhibits from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and the Pitt Rivers. There’s also an exhibition of drawings from Klimt and Schiele, showing the extensive influence of the former on the latter in the early phase of his career. I especially find myself drawn to one of Klimt drawings of a Lady with a Cape and Hat, along with Schiele’s nudes.

After that, I visit the British’s Museum’s Ashurbanipal exhibition, covering the civil wars provoked by dynastic successions and wars with neighbouring empires like Egypt & the Elamites, Relief after relief shows scenes of warfare, whether the siege of Babylon or the decapitated head of an Elamite king resting on a tree branch while Ashurbanipal reclines on a  lounger nearby. The scenes of peace are no less bellicose, with most of the reliefs here showing lion hunts, including one relief showing a dying lion gushing blood.

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The Right Side of History

There was undoubtedly a degree of fatigue at the prospect of going on another People’s Vote March yesterday. The path to such a vote is highly problematic and the prospect that the debate would create any more clarity than the previous vote remains highly uncertain. But with the Brexit negotiations continuing to career wildly off the rails, I did feel obligated to do what little I could and attend. Arriving at Park Lane, it became obvious that there were multiple streams of people heading towards the March; such were the volume of crowds that they soon, much like the Brexit negotiations themselves, ground to a standstill. By early-afternoon, I had only managed to reach the point I had started the first March at. As it later turned out, yesterday’s March was easily the largest of the three I’ve been on; about seven times larger than the last, which was in turn larger than the one before it. It turns out to have been the second largest protest in London this century. As I said last time, the sense of anger at being sent on a road to nowhere clearly continues to grow rather than dissipate.  This is great in political terms but possibly somewhat anti-climactic in personal terms, as after several hours of rather crowded shuffling, we could only get as far as Trafalgar Square with Whitehall absolutely logjammed, let alone Parliament Square.

As I eventually leave at Charing Cross tube, there’s some heckling about people trying to undo a democratic vote. It’s not an unreasonable argument, but the fact remains that the most likely outcome at this point, No-Deal, was airily dismissed during the referendum as Project Fear scaremongering. Pretending that a mandate still exists when what is being negotiated no longer bears any resemblance to the original campaign, strikes me as little more than denialism of how a false prospectus has ended as a failed prospectus. The comment that sticks out for me the following day is simple; protests this large tend to be on the right side of history. It may well prove a poor consolation but at least I will know that what I did was right.

Spellbound

The Spellbound exhibition at the Ashmolean begins with a rather familiar object: the witch bottle from the nearby Pitt Rivers Museum (‘They do say there be awitch in it, and if you let him out there’ll be a peck o’ trouble’). A lot of the other objects follow in the same vein;  a desiccated human heart inside a lead case, a Victorian poppet with a needle through its head (along with a toad and sundry animal hearts skewered in the same way), a Mandrake root, a barn door marked with magical symbols to protect livestock, a witches ladder from Somerset, fragments of Unicorn horn (Narwhal tusk), John Dee’s Obsidian mirror and crystal ball, a copy of The Discovery of Witches by Matthew Hopkins, an Italian magic mirror designed to invoke the demon Floron, a ‘Ghirlanda’ curse necklace made of feathers and silk ‘ectoplasm’ from the fake medium Helen Duncan. Some of the context provided by the exhibition is to draw modern parallels, with love locks cut from a bridge in Leeds or a modern medicine bottle thrown into the Thames mostly containing human teeth.

Downstairs, there’s a pair of LGBT exhibitions. The first includes a series of casts and sculptures of Antinous, ranging from his depiction as Osiris to Dionysus, alongside sculptures of Hadrian and Germanicus, the subject of a comparable cult. There’s also a small exhibition covering the anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, featuring posters of Maurice, Cavafy drawings by Hockney, a portrait of the Ladies of Llangollen and eighties campaign badges.

The National Gallery’s Mantegna and Bellini exhibition dwells on the relationship between two brothers in law who influenced each other but painted in different milieu, in Venice and Mantua.  In the first room, both artists have painted the presentation of Christ in the Temple. The detailing is finer in the Mantegna but what sticks in the mind is Bellini’s addition of two onlookers at either side of the original, one of whom looks directly out at the observer. It was Mantegna who developed the style of painting figures against dark backgrounds, but the examples from Bellini are rather more striking, with paintings of (apocryphally, at least) Mategna himself or The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene. His portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan is also here, which also reminds me of Holbein with its soft blue background. When it comes to landscapes, I find myself much preferring Mantegna. When Bellini paints landscapes, the focus is dramatic with the focus on the foreground. By contrast, Mantegna’s work overflows with detail from Escheresque cities on the horizon through to flowers and rabbits in the foreground. A painting of Saint Sebastian has a background filled with  classical ruins reflecting Mantegna’s interest in the pagan world through to clouds in the shape of gods. The riotous surrealism of Minerva expelling the Vices with its Centaurs and Putti is a particularly striking example of this, compared to Bellini’s understated symbolised of woodcutters in the forest forming a background to the murder of two priests in the foreground.

Reading Zola’s His Excellency Eugene Rougon, I find myself thinking of the distinction Zola drew between heredity and the influence of the environment. The Macquart branch descend into vice and criminality while the Rougon branch ascend into the upper classes, in these case into the Council of State. In the novel, Rougon alternately falls from grace with the Emperor only to be restored to a different position and with an entirely new political ideology to suit. What’s noticeable is in the sections where Eugene is ousted from power his behaviour is not vastly different from his Macquart relatives; he falls into idleness and dissipation, just as much as in a novel like L’Assommoir.

Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus reflects the author’s interest in “a situation well described by Heidegger’s term Geworfenheit: being thrown without explanation into an existence governed by obscure rules”. It serves as an allegory, but like Kafka’s work, one that lacks any clear objective correlative. A man and a child arrive as refugees at Novilla. Spainish is widely spoken but details often seem incorrect; German is referred to as English while Cervantes is not credited as the author of Don Quixote.  Life in Novilla seems oddly absent of the normal conditions of being, with its inhabitants feeling little sexual desire or longing. They have no memory of their previous lives. Although Simon explains the need to earn a living most of the housing and services seem free. Meat is rarely eaten. Simon’s work at the docks solely revolves around grain, which mostly ends up being consumed by rats in a warehouse. The Stevedores at the docks spend a lot time in discussion of Platonic forms. The suspicion is that Coetzee is depicting an afterlife, possibly a form of atheist’s heaven, but enough detail of the physical aspects of life remains. By contrast the child David wishes to raise the dead and treats spelling and arithmetic as a form of private language. He speaks of cracks in the world or holes between the pages of a book (Derrida opposed to the prevailing Platonic norms), a non-comformity that leads Novilla to expelling him from the school system, transforming the Novillan utopia into a dystopia that must in turn be fled from.

Open House

Open house in London starts for me this year with standing in the rain in a queue outside a hotel at Liverpool Street. When I’m finally allowed in, it’s to wait in the lobby to wait for the previous group to leave and for a marketing manager to subject me to a toe-curlingly awful brand statement about their new cocktail bar. Finally, the tour begins and I enter the Masonic Temple I’ve been waiting for. Bricked up sometime in the nineteen forties, it had been forgotten about until it had been rediscovered. A chequered floor expands out beneath a gold ceiling depicting the constellations, while red lighting illuminates the sculptures. At one point I find myself wondering about the music being played in the background, until I realise it’s one of Murray Gold’s Doctor who soundtracks.

Next up is 1 Finsbury Circus. I have to wait even longer here until being ushered through security checks into the rather opulent lobby designed for BP by Edwin Lutyens. The rest of the interior is rather more modern and somewhat anodyne; the original listed board room now rests in the basement, inverting what happened at the Lloyds building with its Robert Adam boardroom now sitting on the top floor of a skyscraper. After that, I visit the churches of St Andrew Undershaft and St Olave, before visiting the Lloyds Shipping Register. This renovated building includes a series of archaeological exhibits from its reconstruction, including a Roman Sphinx. The original interiors are especially impressive, including frescoed ceilings, Morris wallpaper, De Morgan tiling and Brangwyn paintings. Next is Clothworker’s Hall, which rather bizarrely veers from heraldic stained glass and tapestries to golden sheep, before Clothworker’s Hall, a modern reconstruction after damage in the second world war. There are some rather impressive carvings in the style of Grinling Gibbons.  Lastly, I leave the City and arrive at Soho to see Aston Webb’s French Protestant Church. There’s a small library near the door and my attention gets drawn to one of the books, a Bible with versions in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Syriac and Aramaic.

I also go on a late visit to the Soane Museum. I’d forgotten how labyrinthine the interior is, with spiral staircases, internal courtyards and balconies. I finally get to see the sarcophagus of Seti in the basement as statues of Apollo and Soane look down form above. I also like the visit to the art gallery, with its collections of paintings by Hogarth, Gandy, Fuseli and Canaletto, mounted on wooden doors that can be opened to expose a view down to the lower floors.

I’ve just finished reading Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat. As with a lot of her novels, it dwells on the muddled nature of morality. One of the aspects that does stand out particularly here is the implicit defence of gay rights in the novel. The relationship between Axel and Simon proves far more enduring than that of Rupert and Hilda when faced with attempts to undermine it. It also has what must count as one of the earliest discussions of the ethics of coming out, when Axel is forced to consider his hypocrisy in keeping his relationship separated from other aspects of his life. Oddly enough, something similar applies to The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller. Muller’s novel exists in a far more deterministic universe than Murdoch’s, one that is dominated by the objects of the Labour camp and the protagonist’s own drives and instincts, especially the hunger referenced in the title. Leo’s homosexuality is only obliquely referenced throughout until in the end it proves an instinct as powerful as the hunger in the camp, as it drives him out of communist Romania to Austria.

Eden to Empire

Thomas Cole was not a name I’d heard of prior to the National Gallery’s exhibition dedicated to him. It starts by placing him alongside painters like Claude, Turner, Martin and Constable as a context for his own work showing mythological scenes of Empires rising and falling as well as his more straightforward landscapes, ranging from scenes of Florence and Rome on the grand tour to New England.The mythological scenes do remind me of Claude and Martin a great deal, showing a fictional empire at its height through to its destruction and collapse into ruins. The final rooms place his work alongside American painters like Frederick Church; in spite of his own vision being pastoral and opposed to the industrialisation under Andrew Jackson, later painters depicting the same scenes as he did tended to show commerce and industry simply as a part of the landscape rather than something opposed to it. The exhibition is in the gallery basement and I briefly have a wonder round the galleries there; if I’ve visited them before I don’t recall. It mostly seems to consist of lesser works not considered worthy of more prominent display; I find myself very impressed by a series of Vernet historical paintings showing scenes from the Napoleonic wars though.

There’s also a small companion exhibition from Ed Ruscha, showing 5 paintings he had created in the nineties of a series of buildings and 5 companion pieces showing the same scenes now; A company called Tech Chem now bears the sign Fat Boy. The sky around it is blood red. The bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were called Fat Man and Little Boy. I’m not sure the comparison with Cole is tremendously effective though; Ruscha’s illustrative style is sparse and often the differences are often slight.

The Tate is running a free exhibition on Weimar art for the next year; the parallels with current affairs were presumably sufficiently glaring as to warrant this. It divides between magical realist works (dwelling on more gothic subjects like cabaret and circuses) and Verism (more satirical work of the kind we are familiar with, such as Dix and Grosz). In practice the distinction is often blurred, with both sets dwelling on subjects like suicide and murder. The style equally veers between  grotesque caricature combined with lurid colouring to photorealistic portraits.

The following week, I visited the new Triforium gallery at Westminster Abbey. It’s a great many years since I last visited the Abbey and I’d entirely forgotten how wondrous it is. This is also entirely true of the Triforium. I ascend to it via the rather steampunk staircase in the new Weston Tower. The designer, Ptolemy Dean, has combined glass and metal with the Abbey’s own gothic leitmotifs and the effect is extraordinary as I walks upwards and peers through the stained glass of the lady chapel. The rose windows at the top that look out do so through a maze of buttresses lined with marching ranks of heraldic greyhounds, lions and dragons. As you face inwards, you can see what Betjeman called the ‘best view in Europe,’ that is from above the altar straight down the nave. It’s breathtaking stuff but the galleries themselves are full of interest, from a wooden model of Wren’s design for a spire, copies of the crown jewels and coronation chairs through to wooden funeral effigies of medieval kings and later wax models of Elizabeth, Anne, William, Mary and (oddly enough) Nelson. A stuffed grey parrot belong to the Duchess of Richmond is one of the more unusual exhibits, but my favourite is  an elaborate concertina paper model of the interior of the abbey, made for the coronation of Queen Victoria in the 1830s, a kind of “peep show.” Back downstairs, I note a new plaque for Stephen Hawking. I don’t think I visited the Cloisters on my last visit so I do so now, along with the rather collegiate gardens that surround the Abbey on this side, with the Abbey facing one side and the Palace of Westminster another.

That evening, I go to the Proms for a performance of the German Requiem by Brahms, following a visit a few weeks back to an organ recital of Fauré, Franck & Widor’s Toccata. The next week, I listen to the German requiem by Brahms and the Budapest Festival Orchestra performing Liszt and Brahms, interpolating them with more traditional Gypsy instruments and orchestrations. Finally, the last week of the Proms is rather exhausting. It starts with a Tango prom, including familiar pieces from Piazzolla and rather less expected diversions into Finland’s experiments from prog-rock Tango, including Veli Kujala playing his own quarter-tone accordion and a version of Bowie’s Life on Mars, before reverting back to Pablo Ziegler’s more jazzy interpretations of Piazzolla. Next is Britten’s War Requiem and finally, there is Handel’s Theodora, a chirpy piece on Early Christian martyrdom, performed by the astonishing countertenor Iestyn Davies.

A few weeks later, I go to the Indian subcontinent exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery. It’s divided into two halves; the first gifts from a tour made by the Prince of Wales (covering various perfume holders, swords, card boxes and inkstands) and the second including various paintings and manuscripts, mostly reflecting the art of the Mughal court. After that, and it’s Open House weekend in Reading and Oxford. In Reading, I see a demonstration of the Victorian Town Hall organ playing Mendelssohn and visit some of the town churches. In Oxford, I visit the gardens near the Thames at Magdalen school, Merton College Chapel, the church of St Edmund and St Frideswide, the church of St Alban the Martyr and Comper’s church of St Peter the Evangelist in Hinksey.

Reading Trollope’s Autobiography, I have to say that I find him harm to warm to. He talks of writing as a craft comparable to shoemaking, whose purpose is mainly to make a living; a statement which might be honest but is still hard to imagine many other Victorian writers saying. He includes a table outlining how much he has earned from all his novels. He sees literature as a form of moral instruction. He defends fox-hunting. He decries the use of competitive examination as he sees the idea that the son of a cleric and of a farmer as having equal potential as a fallacy.

Thackerary’s Barry Lyndon reminds me rather more of early picaresque novels like Moll Flanders and Roxana than most other Victorian novels. The protagonist proceeds through a series of adventures, starting off much in the vein of Tom Jones, which become progressively more immoral until he dies in a debtor’s prison after his wife escapes him. The novel is accordingly something of a morality tale but the reader’s reactions frequently bifurcate between  disgust at his actions and identification with a poor Irish interloper as he defrauds wealthy British and European aristocrats; nor is it coincidental that he attributes his downfall precisely to the point where he ceases to be an outsider and gains wealth, status and respectability. The bifurcation in the text is often a literal one, with the narration being divided between an omniscient narrator and that of the character himself, whose accounts of events diverge and debate with one another.

Disraeli’s Coningsby is in many respects a vehicle for his own rather romantic interpretation of Toryism, denouncing what he refers to as the existing Venetian constitution.  For a novel so emphatic in denouncing the Conservative party of that time for failing to want to conserve anything, it’s surprisingly sympathetic to modern England, with Coningsby wondering at the might of Manchester’s industry at the time and listening to Millbank’s own complaints against the aristocracy.

The Pattern of Friendship

Travelling up to the Midlands, I stop at Compton Verney, for its exhibition on Eric Ravilious and various figures from his circle like the Nashes, Bawden, Freedman, Marx, Garwood and Binyon. I’ve seen a lot of the Nash and Ravilious paintings before but a lot of the rest are new to me. There’s a considerable range of work on display, from painting and Garwood’s woodcuts through to Bawden’s Morley murals and Marx’s textile designs for the London Underground. It seems striking that the woodcuts are some of the most successful works here, largely due to the absence of colour, which often seems confined to a range of subdued colours.The obvious example is Marx’s London Underground seat covers, which set of a range of rather fussy tessellations in yellows and browns; the results are rather hard to like. The most striking work by her in the exhibition is an attempt at a male nude in a Cubist style, which is easily the most obviously modernist piece in the exhibition.  By contrast, Ravilious is successful in moving from painting to decorating ceramics. The exhibition dwells on a lot of his landscape painting, from images of the Downs to his maritime works, concluding in his work as a war artist. Of the other artists, Garwood’s woodcuts mark her as her husband’s equal in that field. Binyon’s illustrations for Penguin Classics similarly suggest that the role of women artists of this period has been undervalued.  By contrast, Bawden’s rather fantastical Morley college murals are one of the highlights in the exhibition but perhaps mark him as a talented illustrator more than an artist; certainly his paintings are less successful. The gallery also has an exhibition of war art, ranging from Victorian paintings to a nurse’s cape stitched with badges from all the regiments she treated (including the Wehrmacht).

The following day, I visit Attingham Park. It’s been a while since I visited and photography is now allowed in the house. The most impressive thing is still the Nash staircase spiralling down to the art gallery and originally from thence to the main hall. The gallery shows a good taste for art, albeit without the means to acquire the most expensive works there are few well known artists (a lot of the works belong to a school or are imitations); Kauffman and Tournier are probably the best known. Some Italian scenes by Hackert are especially striking; a scene showing the excavations at Pompeii springs to mind. I also like a painting showing King William by candlelight. The rest of the house is also beautifully decorated with Scagliola marble and wall frescoes; Fagan’s trompe l’oeil friezes in the entrance hall are especially impressive. By contrast, Calke Abbey remains a mournful relic to aristocratic indolence. Much of the house was left in the state the National Trust found it, which generally means filled with antique junk, bare walls with peeled wallpaper and an alarming amount of taxidermied birds that the family had shot. It feels like an exercise in Urbex more than visiting a stately home. Although some of the rooms remain fairly ornate, the taste for art seems to have been largely absent, with wall after wall filled with paintings of obese cattle in improbably rectangular shapes, painted in the style of Stubbs or Cuyp. The most interesting items are an extensive collection, ranging from Shark’s teeth, Geodes, Fossils and a Crocodile skull. Afterwards, I visit the church at Ticknall, with its William Morris stained glass and medieval tombs.

Lastly, I go for a walk at Bradgate Park. This was the only sunny day all week. I walk up to the Old John folly and head down for a tour of the remains of Bradgate House. The house grounds included a fishing lake, a tiltyard, a bowls court, a formal garden, a kitchen garden (with black Mulberry Tree) and an orchard. A herd of Deer roam about inside, with several of them locking antlers. A Green Woodpecker makes a laughing cry as it watches. Walking round the ruins, I’m able to visit the interior of the only surviving building; the chapel. An impressive monument to Henry and Anne Grey is surmounted by a lion and unicorn design where the face of the lion appears human and is surmounted by horns to suggest the Devil.

Reading Where the Air is Clear by Carlos Fuentes, I’m struck by how much of the narrative could be in an Anglo-American novel. The story of a financier who lgoes bankrupt could come from Dickens or Trollope, but here Roble is lifted to a tragic figure more comparable to Oedipus or Lear, after he is forced to return to an impoverished life he had spent his life escaping. This tension seems fundamental to the narrative; it is partly concerned with how the middle-class had betrayed the Revolution and built their success on the poverty and death of others. It depicts a Mexico desperate to embrace American prosperity at all costs, but it is also concerned with how the Mexican lake of blood is always filled, suggesting that violence and death is simply a cyclical part of Mexican life, epitomised by Ixca’s role as the avenging demon throughout. It’s a novel filled with deaths, many of them simply incidental victims rather than fitting into the moral pattern that brings about Norma’s demise and Roble’s downfall.

Reading Aciman’s Enigma Variations reminds me a bit of DH Lawrence. For all of Lawrence’s tendency to treat heterosexual love as a sacrament his depictions of women lack physicality whereas his depictions of men are emphatically physical. In Aciman’s case, the novel depicts a series of polyamorous affairs with both sexes, but it’s only the male characters who are depicted as intensely physical (the sense of pressing a leg next to another man to see if they move it away springs to mind). Equally, most of the male characters are either depicted as gay or bisexual but none of the women are depicted as anything other than heterosexual.

Sublimation

As it was a nice day I decided to visit the Freud Museum in Finchley today. Bearing blue plaques to both Freud and his daughter Anna, he only lived here for a year after his flight from the flat he had occupied for 40 years in Vienna. The contents include drawings of Freud by Dali, woodblock prints of Mount Fuji by a Japanese psychoanalyst, drawings by the Wolfman, traditional Austrian furniture bought from their country cottage and, of course, the couch (in this case, covered with a Persian rug, with a description supplied by the Iranian embassy). The study is the most interesting area; Freud worked surrounded by archaeological exhibits (i.e. things unearthed from the ground, as he has excavated the unconscious), ranging from Egypt, Rome, Greece and Peru. The shelves are filled with books; Poe, Shaw, Wilder but not much obviously in the way of medical treatises. Afterwards, I visit St Augustine’s church in Kilburn, a cathedral like affair built by JL Pearson.

I went to the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of Victorian photography a few weeks later. Covering work by Julia Margaret Cameron, Clementina Hawarden, Lewis Carroll and Oscar Rejlander, a lot of them cover mythological scenes, either showing scenes from drama  (as with Rejlander’s portrait of Iphigenia or Cameron’s countless Shakespearean scenes) or recasting famous painting (as with Rejlander’s portrait of the Virgin in Prayer  or Reni paintings). Rejlander’s Two Paths of Life, a vast canvas with multiple exposures to deposit a series of figures into it reminds me of the large scale of Victorian history painting, but it equally attracted criticism as its depiction of nude bodies could never match the idealisation they received in art.

Autumn

Visiting the Vyne this weekend, I found the house is currently swathed in scaffolding as the roof is replaced; after a lengthy queue, you can take a lift up to the roof and look down at the works. Inside, the upper floor of the house has been shut and much of the furnishings are on display downstairs in rooms darkened by the scaffolding outside. Afterwards, I went for a walk in the woodland, through trees with yellowing leaves weighed down with red berries and with bracket fungi clinging to their trunks. After a summer of rain and cloud, the arrival of autumn seems somewhat anti-climatic this year.

Tombland

Arriving in Norwich, I walk over the Wensum river and through a park with a Hepworth sculpture in it, through to the church of St George Colegate. The exterior of the church looks a lot like other buildings in the city, the exterior is of beautiful flint but the interior is Georgian, with plain white walls and wooden furnishings. Walking into the centre, I visit the main square, which is a slightly bewildering concoction of architectural styles. The Guildhall’s wall are filled with white and black diamond patterns while opposite is the City Hall, a sort of brutalist art deco building with an entrance flanked by two rather elegant lions. I then visit the church of St Peter Mancroft, with its ornate wooden flèche.  The interior includes a medieval wooden font canopy, Flemish tapestries, medieval stained glass and a Comper designed reredo. The architectural gallimaufry is further compounded by the nearby presence of a beautiful art nouveau shopping arcade. I then wonder around some of the other nearby churches in Norwich, many of them shut like St Giles, or others that have been turned into shops like St Michael-at-Plea or indoor markets like St Gregory Pottergate.

The next day begins with a rare burst of sunlight and I visit rather dark and gloomy Catholic Cathedral before visiting its Anglican counterpart. It seems somewhat odd to have to walk in through a modern visitor centre, although I do like (admittedly rather incongruous) Zen gravel garden. This leads out into the cloisters and I spend some time looking at the ceiling bosses; Green men, Hellmouths, Demons and the Many Headed Beast from Revelations. Inside the cathedral I look at medieval frescos, Burne Jones stained glass, medieval stained glass, a former toffee vat re-purposed as a font and the famous Gooding monument. I also visit some of the now open churches nearby; St George Tombland with its papier mache civic dragon, Flemish reliefs of St George and the dragon and Kempe stained glass. I also visit St Peter Hungate, which is mostly empty and home to a photo exhibition of Norfolk churches. There are some old wooden pews with carvings of muzzled bears, medieval stained glass and brass monuments left though.

That afternoon the weather worsens and I visit the Museum and Art gallery in the castle. Sections like the Norwich school of painters with their bucolic scenes of the local countryside do little for me, although I do like one night scene set in Amsterdam.  There aren’t many works I recognise; a version of the Anunciation by Burne Jones and a portrait by Zoffany. There’s also the painting of the Paston treasure, accompanied by some of the objects in it. Things I like; the original Snap the Civic Dragon from St George Tombland, medieval stained glass showing the seasons, Roman metal bowls showing mythological scenes, the original Romanesque entry door, the Spong man ceramic lid, the Worthing helmet, the Snettisham torcs and medieval alabaster carvings. I’m also rather struck of the country’s largest collection of teapots; stoneware through to Wedgewood, teapots cast as tanks and as camels, as well as the world’s largest teapot, a chinoiserie affair from the Great Exhibition. The design section has a large collection of medieval stained glass, de Morgan tiles, while the Natural History section has a large collection of taxidermy animals; lions, a boxing Kangaroo and a Cassowary. I also like Scrimshaw Whale teeth and Nautilus shells. As in Exeter Museum, there’s a small room showcasing the displays of a Victorian collector, ranging from mounted butterflies through to custard pots. I’m especially taken by the Egyptian room, including a Mummy sarcophagus and Rider Haggard’s faked sherd from She. Lastly, there’s a rather macabre basement dwelling on the castle’s time as a prison and featuring casts of the heads of various murderers and criminals.

On my last day in Norfolk, I take a train out to Wymondham. It’s a rather dark and gloomy day and the old ruins look suitably gothic against a blackened sky. The interior is actually rather colourful, with another vivid set of Comper reredos in the midst of a series of Romanesque arches.

 

 

The Rupture

“This is a letter of hate. It is for you, my countrymen. I mean those men of my country who have defiled it. The men with manic fingers leading the sightless, feeble, betrayed body of my country to its death… Damn you, England. You’re rotting now.” – John Osborne, A Letter to my Fellow Countrymen.

On the evening of June 23rd, I went to bed with a sense of unease, but nonetheless assuming that the following morning would see things continue much as they had before. When the morning of the 24th arrived, it became clear that this was not to be and that I had awoken into a strange place I no longer recognised.  I got up and took the train into Central London. The city was eerily quiet with a third of the seats on the Tube at rush hour empty. In the time taken to get from Paddington to Liverpool Street the Prime Minister had resigned and the currency markets have collapsed. Much of the rest of the day felt like sleepwalking. A sense of nausea overwhelmed me and I noticed that my hands were shaking. All meetings were cancelled and most of the day was spent looking disbelievingly at TV screens showing events that seemed far away but were anything but.

There’s a common joke in Central Europe that someone can live in scores of different countries in their lifetime without once having to move house. I find myself thinking of what it would have been like in East Berlin as a system that had been hollow and decrepit for years finally crumbled. By contrast,  England is used to watching countries fall apart from afar, even as its own fabric has progressively frayed over the years.  A long process that had seen duopolistic rule by two parties eroded, the smashing of liberalism and the rise of nationalism, had finally come to a denouement in a political campaign marked by lies, threats, conspiracy theories and murder. The sensation of ceasing to be a spectator of chaos and becoming an unwilling participant,  as the United Kingdom severs itself from Europe and begins the inevitable process of its own disintegration, still feels unreal.

Nonetheless, events begin spiralling out of control quickly; both government and opposition dissolve at the same point that abuse and attacks against minorities and foreign nationals spike. The far right clearly believe themselves to be emboldened and validated; something malevolent has been unleashed that will not be easy to diminish. Petitions are signed, recriminations begin. Theories as to how things fell this way are evinced according to personal prejudice; none of them are especially convincing. As it becomes clear that the winning campaign had no plan for what would follow their victory, the revolution quickly devours its own would-be Marats and Robespierres.   The vestiges of the Liberal party commit to reversing the referendum decision; several friends who have previously always voted for other parties switch to join them. I find myself wondering instead whether there is anything left to fight for as my feelings veer between a sense of numbness and grief for the loss of my country. It’s difficult not to also feel a sense of shame and guilt at some sort of implicit culpability for its actions. Any inclination to waste further time on elections to Westminster’s tin-pot Parliament is the last thing I feel. As the Conservative Party begins the process of electing a new leader, who unlike the previous one seems unlikely to have any truck with liberal Britain, a sense of helplessness descends.  Events are looked on from afar as a spectator, in much the same way as Kremlinologists once did.

I begin thinking about what my country had actually meant. I grew up in the West Midlands, a part of the country where 58% of the electorate voted to leave the European Union. By contrast, I was educated in Oxford (Remain: 70%) and have since lived in Berkshire (Remain: 55%) and worked in London (Remain: 75%). During the course of the campaign I saw numerous people and posters campaigning for Remain and almost nothing from their opponents. Over time I’ve studied and worked with large numbers of people from different countries, both from within and without of Europe. It becomes easy to see your place in the world as essentially transnational, divorced of connection to the rest of the country. During the course of the 24th it became obvious that many people had begun questioning that; a UK national with a Spanish wife begins applying for a Spanish passport, a Korean stops the process of applying for UK citizenship while a UK national applies to renew her lapsed Polish passport.

My own mental map of my place in the world, as someone ultimately descended from German immigrants, begins to unravel. Concepts like freedom and democracy that had underpinned any sense of national identity seem deformed and corrupted by their appropriation in the campaign.  My identity as a European has been taken from me and it seems likely that the ability to call myself British will also be removed. What remains is a rump sense of Englishness that now stands for little more than isolation, xenophobia and nostalgia. This is something I can only repudiate. Although my love of England has diminished over the years, there’s still much I care for about it. But that only makes it harder for me to even countenance forgiving it.