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.

 

The Gathering Storm

Amidst leaden skies and continual drizzle, a planned visit to Nymans had to be hurriedly substituted for a trip to Chartwell.  Tickets were timed, so I wandered around the grounds with an umbrella for a while, through a series of ornamental lakes lined with Gunera to a kitchen garden. The Ducks and ornamental Carp seem unperturbed by the rain.  The walls of Churchill’s old studio are still lined with his paintings, mostly of the South of France or Italy. A painting of his father still rests on an easel while a painting of the Yalta conference hangs nearby. Walking back to the house, there’s a museum of Churchill memorabilia; carved Russian glass vases, Delft plates in honour of the liberation of the Hague and caskets from Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. Much of the rest of the interior is perhaps rather drab; a sort of oversized version of an suburban house.

A few days later and I find myself at the Royal Academy’s Giorgione exhibition. Like the previous Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery, this is less about one subject and more about the era, featuring works from Titian, Bellini and Durer.  The most striking works are probably the portraits. Bellini and Durer tend to show their subject against landscapes or plain backgrounds; Giorgione shows a knight in full armour with his groom or a master and his servant, placing the subject into a context.

Later that week and I’m at the Royal Festival Hall. I’ve not been there before; I generally feel that the exterior of the building is nondescript, the interior is maze-like (and leaves you suspecting that you have arrived back in the early sixties) but the actual hall and its acoustics are rather pleasant. I’m here to see a performance of JenůfaAs with my experience of Osud a few years back, I’m struck by how each piece would work as a novel or play without the music; in this case, much of the story seems to recall a Hardy novel but the lack of inevitability in the ending and the avoidance of further tragedy comes as an interesting surprise.

Lincolnian

It’s a long way up to Lincoln and I find myself changing trains a few times between Derby and Nottingham, with the train getting older at each stage. Eventually, the train pulls in and I begin walking up the hill to the cathedral. I like the literalism of street signs with names like ‘Steep Hill,’ a winding lane lined with medieval stone and halef-timbered houses. Eventually, I realise that the amount of aviator goggles, blunderbusses and pith helmets in evidence means that I’ve arrived during a steampunk festival. I have a walk around the cathedral to the Tennyson statue and visit the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace. I’m rather struck by the reconstructed gardens, especially the vineyard (although the rather small grapes suggest very little wine is likely to be forthcoming). From this terrace on the hill, you can see out over much of the surrounding flat countryside. Lastly, I walk out to the Ellis windmill, before retiring for the evening.

The following morning I start by visiting the castle. As a structure it’s actually rather simple, with only the presence of two towers varying the classic Motte and Bailey design, but it does cover a large area and it takes a fair while to do a circuit of the walls. The view of the cathedral from here is especially striking, with the three towers appearing to form a solid block, like a group of medieval skyscrapers. One of the the towers is also quite striking; its walls form an enclosure within which a copse of trees has grown and beneath which rest a number of headstones (the remains of those executed within the prison). Looking round the prison, I start with the chapel, whose pews are formed from an ampitheatre of solitary boxes so as to divide the prisoners from one another, while the prison blocks form long and surprisingly elegant arcades. The prison houses a medieval stone sarcophagus found on the site as well as an exhibition housing the cathedral copy of the Magna Carta (presumably one of those I’d previously seen in the British Library) along with the Charter of the Forests.

I then visit the cathedral, looking initially at the restored Romanesque reliefs and the weathered originals from the facade. I particularly like elements like the Harry Stammers wall memorial glass, the tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine, medieval stained glass, the Lincoln imp, the chapter house, cloisters, Tournai marble font and the library but the highlight for me is Duncan Grant’s side chapel. Grant’s frescos, with their bright yellows and oranges sit oddly in their gothic surroundings. His cityscape looks more Italianate than Lincolnian while their unabashed homoeroticism completes the sense of a rather joyful paganism. 

I also briefly visit the Usher Gallery and Museum, with its ammonite, longcase clocks, suit of armour, Roman mosaics, neo-classical scuptures by Joseph Nollekens & John Gibson, a portrait of Joseph Banks and paintings by Turner, Joseph Wright of Derby and Lowry. I particularly like the Louth panorama, an all-round view of the town and district as seen from the top of the spire of St James’s parish church as on a summer’s day in the 1840s. Some exhibits I’m less keen on; a Grayson Perry pot and an entire room of George Stubbs paintings.

Rusted Forests

Last weekend, I went on a tour of derelict sites in Silvertown. It’s an unprepossessing area that has only (so far) sporadically been exposed to the march of development in the capital and which still has a large number of industrial sites; and in fact the tour starts near the Tate and Lyle factory. The first item is a product of philanthropy; the Tate institute, now derelict and boarded up. In one case, the building in question is almost entirely hidden behind a jungle of Buddleia; in another case an abandoned funpark is just a set of locked gates whose metal leaves have turned to rust. The area behind it is now just an empty field looking out over the Millennium Mills hulk. It’s a stiflingly hot but overcast day and the walk along mostly deserted concrete flyovers, occasional luxury flat block and crumbling Victoriana is a rather punishing one. The most beautiful part is easily the Thames Barrier Park with its sculptural swathes of colour, although even here a memorial in the park is barriered off. The tour ends at the Royal Victoria Dock, which seems a world away from much of the previous surroundings, with its cafes and windsurfing. The following day I visit Greenwich and have a look at the Gagarin statue placed outside the Royal Observatory, before visiting the Planetarium and its collection of timepieces.

The weekend after and I visit Ham House, waking out to it from Richmond along the Thames. It’s a little late for the gardens but the Wisteria and Sunflowers are in full bloom. The gardens combine trees with shaded paths with more formal planting that relies on variations on shades of green. The house itself has a spectacular staircase furnished with Titian copies and busts of Roman figues, a long gallery lined with paintings of figures like Charles the First and Second and marquetry cabinets, a library with globes and maps (missing off areas like the North West of America or New Zealand) and ceiling frescos by Verrio. That evening, it’s a performance of Mike Leigh’s version of the Pirates of Penzance; it’s a quite traditional version as far as the costumes are concerned but the staging is minimalist to the point of resembling a Mondrian painting. It’s an odd combination. My general reaction to the opera was sympathy for Gilbert’s frustration with Sullivan’s obsession with the world of topsy-turvy.

The following weekend I visit Great St Barts, mostly for the sculpture of Saint Bartholomew by Damien Hirst. The gold of the statue glitters in the dim light of the church. Next, I visit the Petrie Museum with its collection of Egyptian sculpture, Cartonnage masks, Mummy cases and Fayum portraits before visiting the Foundling Museum. A combination of Hogarth paintings and sculptures by Rysbrack stand out in the interior here; there’s also an exhibition of rococo plasterwork by Geoffrey Preston, from his work on restoring National Trust properties through to contemporary designs at . I go to the Globe a few times; an excellent performance of Richard the Second and a more average performance of Measure for Measure (a difficult play to get right and I wasn’t sure the balance of comedy was spot on; not helped by a position in the stalls that made it difficult to discern all of what was said).

A few weeks later, and I go the Helpworth Exhibition at the Tate. It starts by showing stone and wood sculptures of the human and animal form before showing some of the work from her studio with Ben Nicholson (I especially like some of her experiments with photograms) as well as some of her more commercial work with fabrics. A lot of this early work isn’t distinct from an Epstein or a Moore, and it’s the later sections that stand out with its depiction of organic forms counterpointed by geometrically precise lines, some of the larger work, with its wooden shells and stone interiors in particular. The exhibition also includes an old film about her work in Cornwall, showing it against a landscape and comparing it the megaliths in the area. There are some oddities too; paintings showing surgical techniques from during the war.

Easter

As the waters slowly recede from flooded fields and the sun returns to the sky, I decide to visit Portsmouth. The train takes my straight to the harbour and I walk along the quayside to the Royal Dockyards and I look around inside Warrior and Victory. I’m especially impressed by Warrior’s engine room, with the furnaces lit up by red lights. I also have a look at some of the museums, looking at strange figureheads designed around Gods like Apollo, nymphs and Arabic princes and the various memorabilia created around the cult of Nelson; paintings, busts, china plates, Wedgewood vases and locks of hair. I then walk past status of Captain Scott and King William in the Porter’s Garden before visiting the Mary Rose. When I had last visited as a child the wrecked timbers were still being hosed down with water; now they are being dried out and are much more visible. Finally, I go for a walk on the beach and along the sea front, past the Nelson statue and the ruins of the Royal Garrison church before visiting the cathedral. Unsurprisingly, the nineteen thirties facade looks rather militaristic but the gothic interior with its naval memorials is rather elegant with the Buckingham monument and a Sergei Fyodorov icon. I then walk back to the austere Guildhall with its war memorials and monuments to Queen Victoria surrounded by the rather dilapidated buildings of modern Portsmouth befor boarding the return train.

The following weekend and I travel up to the Midlands. I stop on route at the Ripon Chapel at Cuddesdon. The interior is extraordinary with the linden beams serving as elegant flying buttresses on the inside of the building, with the modernist curtain wall on the exterior bearing all the load. Light streams through the uppermost windows, refracting into butterfly colours on the pillars beneath. Back up in the Midlands and I revisit Pugin’s church at Cheadle before returning to the gardens at Biddulph Grange. Since my last visit some of the Chinese follies have been re-opened and the Giant Redwoods have started to grow tall and strong. It’s too early for the Dahlias to be in flower but Tulips and Rhododendrons are in flower. Carp and ducks swim alongside one another in the lake. As we leave, we walk up to the ruined castle at Mow Cop, from where we can almost see as far as Liverpool across the Cheshire plain. Lastly, I visit Little Moreton Hall. The next day, and we drive down to Herefordshire. We revisit the church at Brockhampton, with its thatched arts and crafts exterior matched by an almost art deco exterior and the church at Kilpeck with its Romanesque door decorations. We also visit Abbey Dore for the first time, with a pain interior whose walls remain covered by frescoed homilies. I rather like the detailed medieval bosses, wooden carvings, medieval tiles and Victorian stained glass. I then carry on to the church at St Margaret, with its beautiful carved wooden rood screen, the church at Hampton Bishop with its arts and crafts stained glass and half timbered tower. Lastly, I also visit Castle Frome, whose tower is also half timbered. The most interesting things here are the Romanesque font and medieval tomb monument.

Travelling back down south, I visit Compton Verney. The gallery has an exhibition of Moore and Rodin sculptures, the latest in a sequence of Moore exhibitions paired with another rather more powerful artists (Bacon, Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska). In this case, there is a genuine influence and thee are several points of comparison. Rodin’s stress on the unfinished and fragmented, creating the aspect of sculptures as pitted and scarred as ancient Roman sculpture certainly emerges as an influence (although an unfinished figure atop a classical column reminds me of Mitoraj more than Moore) but Rodin’s work is figurative and predominantly occupies a world of history and mythology, while Moore’s work is at its best when entirely abstract; any referential content relates to a private mythology. A room showing their respective collections is occupied by Roman sculpture for Rodin but a much wider frame of reference for Moore, from Oceania to Medieval Europe. The grounds are filled with several of their paired sculptures, including the Burghers of Calais and Moore’s Arch. Of the works inside, many come from Rodin’s Gates of Hell designs. As before with Moore, I prefer many of his drawings to their counterpart sculptures; they retain a definition where his sculptures tend towards the amorphous; parallels are drawn between Moore’s drawings in the Tube during the Blitz and Rodin’s work after the Commune. Outside, the chapel is also open, and I can now see a range of medieval floor tombs and alabaster monuments.

El Dorado

The British Museum’s El Dorado exhibition reminds me of Junichiro Tanizaki’s observation that part of the historical appeal of gold (shared here by the Colombians and the Conquistadors alike) rests with how it catch the light in the darkness. With the artefacts lit up amidst the shadows inside the British Museum’s reading room. For the Colombians, the glittering of gold in the light was an emblem of the sun; wearing a gold headdress or jewellery was to bring one closer to the sun’s power. Gold was used to form emblems of the natural world, from crocodiles and bats through to birds, jaguars (I especially like one that resembles a Cheshire cat), frogs and lobsters and as a component of religious ceremonies with cups and dipping sticks used to mix coca and lime. Gold was even used in the rattles and bells that formed their musical accompaniment. The most striking story is of the golden one,their body painted with body casting gold offerings into a lake, recalling at once the founding of Tenochtitlan or the marriage of Venice to the sea. The exhibition at one stroke trades off the prominence of gold and at another seeks to diminish it, noting that as with the Aztecs other objects such as feathered headdresses held similar votive qualities.

Next, I head into central London one evening to visit the Pop Art exhibition at the Barbican. Ranging from videos of the Smithsons at the Daily Mail’s Ideal Home Exhibition, Aarnio ballchairs through to lip sofas, plastic cacti & lamp shades, Warhol’s Marilyn prints, Lichtenstein comic panels and Hamilton collages. Obviously, pop art expressed itself through re-purposing contemporary industrial design and advertising but there does remain quite a difference between the design of an Eames chair and Chair 1969 by Allen Jones. Much of pop art is infected with irony and surreal humour in contrast to the rather spartan design ethic of much of the age. The inclusion of Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip rather serves to remind me that much of pop art probably had more in common with the demotic mass culture it appropriated than it did with a lot of the official design placed alongside it here. I’m a little less taken with the Klee exhibition at Tate Modern, as I find myself liking some of his protean incarnations more than others. The one I respond most to is perhaps the most Cubist; the ‘magic squares’ that make up his conception of pictorial architecture. Afterwards, I go for a walk from the Tate through to London Bridge.

Next weekend, I visit Oxford for its exhibition of Bacon and Moore works. The exhibition notes that these two artists have not been exhibited before but compares them by noting that both tended to work by deforming conventional representations of the human body; as Bacon’s work became more plastic and definite so did Moore’s work become less static. Both shared an interest in Christian themes, with Moore both drawing & sculpting the crucifixion and Bacon’s screaming Popes. I’m not sure I’m wholly convinced though; amongst the Moore sculptures in the exhibition are various sketches, which tend to resemble Chirico rather more than Bacon. Moore’s work is emphatically concrete, emphasising the physical. Bacon’s idea of the flesh is that it dissolves, so that the boundaries between his figures become indistinct. Although works like his drawings of miners discover a sense of dynamism, Moore’s drawings of sleepers in the London Underground are perhaps more typical. The following weekend comes and I visit the Chinese painting exhibition at the V&A. The early sections dwell on Buddhist influences on Tang silk screen paintings, originally painted in bright colours and marking what are essentially chantry offerings. With the advent of the Song dynasty, colours becomes sparse and muted, and forms like landscape emerge more clearly, where images of clouds and mountains blur into one another. The use of ‘mi dots’ to create blurred, stippled, brushstrokes, rather recalls pointillism and divisionism. Literati painting emerges as a style where calligraphy, poetry and painting merge. My favourite piece through is Xu Yang’s Prosperous Suzhou a detailed panoramic depiction of the city from its opera house, temples, markets to its harbour. I wonder why it would have been like if a European city of the time had been depicted in such detail.

Greyfriars house in Worcester is a medieval building, its interior combines medieval wooden furniture and tapestries with Georgian wallpaper, Chinese porcelain, Ostrich eggs, majolica tiles, William Morris furniture and Worcester ceramics. I particularly like a spice cabinet in one room, showing examples of now largel unused spices like Zedoary, Cubeb and Grain of Paradise. Even in autumn, the garden is rather pleasant with a sale under way of apples, pears and quinces grown in it. One gateway is flanked by a pair of ceramic dolphins given by Clough-Ellis. Elsewhere in the city, the art gallery has a Joseph Beuys exhibition combining some of his experiments with textiles and materials with some of his installations and polemical posters; otherwise the gallery has some good Roman mosaics, Worcester pottery, Icthyosaur fossils and an assortment of stuffed animals including a Sturgeon and an Albatross.

Travelling back to the Midlands at Christmas, I stop off at Banbury and visit the church of St Mary, with its Georgian exterior, Victorian interior decoration and Antarctic stained glass window, as well as looking at the nearby Banbury cross and statue by John Gibbs. Back in the Midlands, I visit the National Memorial Arboretum; the nearby rivers are flooded and the ground is marshy but it’s a beautiful day, with the reflections of the leafless tree boughs reflected in the muddy river water. I also note that the redwoods planted at the far side of the arboretum have grown tremendously since I last saw them. I head up to Derbyshire to visit the ruins of the Georgian house at Sutton Scarsdale. It’s a rather bright but cold winter’s day and the ruins cast a forlorn prospect on the horizon. On what were once the interior walls decayed plaster casts of the decoration remain I then visit Bolsover castle, where I’m rather pleasantly surprised. Initially, I start by looking at the stables, where the wooden roof beams form a cathedral-like interior before I walk onto the ruins that form part of the castle, with a terrace that runs along the edge of the ridge that the building surmounts. Lastly, I look at the ‘little castle’ where wall frescos of Hercules remain, alongside frescoed ceilings, painted wood panelling and fireplaces built with English marbles, all in a combination of gothic and Jacobean domestic design. I then briefly visit Hardwick Hall; the building is closed but the grounds are open. I’m struck by the row of white painted trees leading up to the main door. On my way back down south, I visit the Rollright stones.

Reading Rider Haggard’s main novels, I was struck by the contrasts in his attitudes towards colonialism and gender. In King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain African natives are frequently depicted as barbarous (as with the Zulu kidnapping of a missionary’s daughter) but as is often the case in such depictions, Haggard frequently seems to prefer the noble savagery of warrior natives like Umslopogaas and Ignosi to the civilised effeminacy of Alphonse. In King Solomon’s Mines Haggard suggests the possibility of inter-racial love between Good and Foulata, only to withdraw it through the deus ex machina of her death. Whereas in King Solomon’s Mines the white explorers participate in a colonial narrative that benevolently deposes a despot, their intervention in the affairs of the white Zu-Vendis is a force of destruction, leading to the anti-colonial indictment at the end of the book. One notable aspect of Allan Quatermain is that it takes the Zu-Vendis religion seriously; this is even more apparent in She and Aysesha where Egyptian and Tibetan mysticism presents a challenge to Christianity that is left answered. As with the queen in Allan Quatermain Ayesha’s gender is not presented as an impediment to her rule; if anything her behaviour is often similar to that of the male tyrants in Haggard’s novels while her glamour tends to leave her male servants passive to her; however, even so she is often portrayed as weak and indecisive, as when Leo is at the point of death.

Promming

I‘m not planning to go to too many proms this year but the Wagner bicentenary does offer a chance to see most of Wagner’s major operas. Tannhäuser is a relatively uncomplicated moral fable; sensuality must be renounced and the road to salvation can only be attained through suffering and death with the distinction encapsulated in the Virgin/Whore figures of Venus and Elizabeth. Parsifal resembles Tannhäuser in several respects, with the flower maidens fulfilling the same role as the Venusberg. However, although Kundry plays the role of temptress to some extent, there is no equivalent for the figures of Venus and Elizabeth; if anything Kundry more resembles the wandering outcasts who are usually male in Wager’s operas. In Tristan and Isolde where Isolde combines both of these roles Wagner simultaneously sees love as something transcendental, destructive and emasculating; hence Tristan’s defeat in combat and the deliberate blurring of whether their love is attributable to the deus ex machina of the potion or whether love is to be experienced as a form of involuntary madness. Walking back to Paddington after the Parsifal I hear owls in Hyde Park.

The Royal Academy’s Mexican art exhibition has both the strengths and weaknesses of a historical survey; it downplays the more famous artists (it only has one small Frida Kahlo self portrait and one larger Diego Rivera painting) but does offer a wider picture of the period. Organised chronologically, it begins with the Mexican revolution with Hugo Brehme’s photos and calavera prints; Francisco Goitia’s painting of a Zacatecan landscape stands out most here. The mask-like painting of Zapata by David Alfaro Siqueiros also stands out. Perhaps oddly for a survey of Mexican art, quite a lot of attention is given to photographs taken by Bresson and Edward Weston of Mexican pyramids or portraits of figures like DH Lawrence. Laura Gilpin’s photos of Chichen Itza also stand out. If anything, I like the photography of Manuel Alvarez Bravo rather more, with photos of carousel horses, a box of visions, Mexican elections, crime victims, dancing puppets and firemen that look like Venetian plague doctors. I also like the paintings of Marsden Hartley of the Mexican landscape, painting the simplest shapes with the boldest primary colours.

A few weeks later, I spend an afternoon visiting Guildford. The modern cathedral bears interesting comparison with that at Coventry. From the outside, for all its striking position the cathedral rather resembles a parish church of the same period. The interior retains more of the trappings of a cathedral, with the decorative jouissance characteristic of gothic replaced by austere minimalism. The result is rather more likeable than Coventry, with the interior flooded wit light rather than the gloom within its counterpart, although it lack the wealth of sculptural and artistic detail that Coventry has (excepting the Eric Gill sculptures on the outside). The castle in Guildford is rather more impressive; a surviving Norman keep surrounded by a park. The view from the keep looks out over the cathedral hill and over to the skyscrapers of Wokig in the distance.

The following week I decide to visit Evesham in Worcestershire. The Abbey park is an odd placed, with the remains of the dissolved abbey accompanied by two nearby churches. The church of St Lawrence has suffered somewhat from Victorian restoration; the Preedy stained glass windows are somewhat famed locally but I can’t really bring myself to like them. What is interesting is the Lichfield chantry chapel, with its fan vaulted ceiling and font lined with grotesque carvings. Again, with the nearby All Saints church the most interesting thing is the Montfort chapel with its fan vaulting ceiling but the rest of the interior has again suffered somewhat at Preedy’s hands. Outside, I have a look at the old abbey bell tower and arch.

Dorothy Parker is one of those writers principally known through reputation only, with that reputation resting precariously on a number of lines from her poems and bon mots. In practice though, these lines seem somewhat unrepresentative of her work which often seems to more resemble late Victorian romanticism than Wilde or Rochefoucauld; although in several cases the more satirical voice in Parker’s work deliberately undermines the more stately romantic one, they often seem parallel and unrelated strands of her work. Her critical works perhaps conform better to the impression one might have had of her, although inevitably in a lot of cases her subject matter has now fallen into obscurity. In a lot of cases, her judgements seem prescient and acute; as in defending Nabokov, Hemingway and Lawrence.But equally, she praises Nevil Shute while castigating Kerouac.

Canterbury, Chichester and Rochester

I‘m visiting Canterbury to go on a tour of the city and the cathedral but before the tour begins I have a look inside the Beaney Institute (avoiding the Greenpeace polar bear posing for photographs outside). There are rather too many of Thomas Sidney Cooper’s cattle paintings for my liking but I rather like the Anglo-Saxon collections and a wunderkammer complete with stuffed Pangolin. The tour begins with the Hospital of St John the Baptist, exploring a crypt that still periodically floods and an upper chapel containing a mandorla fresco that had been hidden underneath whitewash. We walk around the city, exploring Dane John Mound and the city walls before entering the War Memorial Garden by the cathedral. The interior is relatively stark but as the sunlight draws thin a golden sheen over everything while the candle at the shrine of Thomas Becket shines all the brighter. I particularly like the crossing, a macabre tomb chest monument, St Michael’s monument, the effigy of King Henry and the maritime Hales monument.

A few weeks later, and it’s the turn of Chichester. This is particularly wonderful cathedral, filled with artworks commissioned by Dean Hussey, such as tapestries by Piper, a painting by Sutherland and a marvelous Chagall window. The artworks also go further back; wooden panels painted with the Kings and Queens of England, medieval sculpted reliefs and a monument to William Huskisson. Peregrine falcons are nesting on the cathedral spire while I’m there and the outside of the building has an encampment of photographers pitched outside it. I also have a look at the Georgian church of St John the Evangelist, an octagonal building In the afternoon, I visit the Pallant House Gallery. Most of the collection here is modern, but there are medieval wooden panels painted with portraits of historic women. Sickert and the Camden Town Group are well represented in the collection and I’m especially struck by a homoerotic painting of male bathers by Duncan Grant. There are also landscapes by Gertler, Ravilious, Nash and Fry as well as a striking view of Jerusalem by Bomberg. Elsewhere there are paintings by Piper, Sutherland, Nicholson and sculpture by Hepworth. The gallery is hosting an exhibition by Paolozzi from sculptures through to dress designs.

The last cathedral city I visited is Rochester. The main street is draped in bunting as I walk up to the cathedral. The interior has some extraordinary monuments such as the Henniker monument with its sculpture of Father Time. I also rather like the Victorian green men designs on the cathedral crossing, Minton tiling the medieval fresco of the wheel of fortune. I then visit the nearby castle ruins. The view from the castle keep over the river Medway with its boats (and even a submarine, if I recall correctly?) is wonderful. Finally, I visit Restoration House, an Elizabethan mansion with layers of successive periods accreted within it; Chinese flowers made of precious stones, French tapestries, stained glass with maritime scenes, a bust of Cromwell, Reynolds paintings, Pre-Raphaelite paneling, William and Mary coronation wallpaper inside an old sideboard. The garden outside is divided between a formal garden (stalked by a long haired cat), a pond, an orchard and a flower garden.

The British Museum’s Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition is based around the structure of a Roman villa from one of the cities. The contents accordingly range from extraordinary garden frescos to wind chimes prominently featuring cocks as a good luck charm, fresco portraits, bronze statues, carbonised bread and pomegranates and a marble statue of Pan fucking a goat. The Tate’s exhibition of Lowry’s work is intriguing. Although it compares his work to that of various European counterparts, the work of Valette or Utrillo is close to the European avant garde in a way that Lowry’s work is not. His perspectives are often distorted in order to create a bird’s eye or panoramic view, rather reminding one of Japanese art. His figures resemble cartoons; although it can be argued that this reflects the dehumanisation of people the overall effect is still reminiscent of Disney. The ground is always white in Lowry paintings, rather creating the impression of a Brueghel winter scene. For all of the documenting of social injustices in Manchester, the same style is exactly applied to places like Berwick Upon Tweed. The paintings I most like, such as St Augustine’s church, Pendlebury or The Empty House have a rather gothic quality to them, like an English version of Hopper’s House of the Railroad.

Exeter

Exeter is a mixture of post-war buildings, Georgian houses and half-timbered buildings, interspersed with churches designed in the local crimson sandstone. The cathedral green is host to Morris dancing throughout the day and the sound of jingling bells resounds through the air as I walk past the crumbling sculptures on the facade and enter the cathedral. I walk down the nave, past the Minstrel’s gallery and Gilbert Scott’s font and look at the astronomical clock and cat-flap. Elaborate painted monuments remain in many of the side chapels alongside their Victorian imperial counterparts. There are also several surviving medieval frescoes and murals, although there’s very little stained glass; much of what remains is Victorian, often by Comper. The quire misericords feature elephants, crocodiles and whales.

I then explore the city, walking past the church of St Olave to Nicholas Priory, a Benedictine Priory converted into a house during the reformation; the cellar and kitchen retain their gothic ceilings but many of the other rooms, such as the parlour have Elizabethan plaster ceilings and painted oak paneling. I have a look in the churches of St Martin (a small building near the cathedral that is nonetheless replete with monuments) and St Stephen (a refurnished church with some surviving monuments) before visiting the Royal Albert Memoral Museum. This has been recently renovated and in place of either deep Victorian colours or the same clinical white that the Ashmolean was redecorated in, bright pink burnishes the interior of the gothic revival building. The first room houses an exhibition of local paintings by the likes of Samuel Palmer and Robert Bevan, before I move on to Natural History with its collection of Nautilus shells, Ammonites, Icthyosaur fossils, stuffed tigers, 19th century zoological drawings, mounted butterflies and stuffed cassowaries; I’m struck by the skull of Captain Scott’s dog. The Sladen collection includes Victorian diatom slides and pickled echinoderm specimens. The history section begins with flint axes and Roman mosaics before moving onwards to an iron age wooden figure that rather resembles a Modigliani painting or an Easter Island Moai. A sunburst overmantel, fragments of stained glass, Saxon crosses, oak carvings of St Peter and Victorian ceramics such as terracotta Sphinxes also feature prominently. The world cultures section is perhaps the most fascinating part of the museum featuring Tahitian mourning dresses, Japanese masks, scar devils from the Nicabar Islands, Inuit clothing made from whale stomach, a Haka spear support, a multi-headed figure of Vishnu, an alabaster sculpture of Ganesh, Samurai armour, Zoroastrian wood carvings from Afghanistan, Japanese rice carvings, a Burmese sculpture of the Buddha and prayer scrolls, Yoruba masks and a modern totem pole. The classical section includes an Egyptian sarcophagus and a Hoplite helmet. Lastly, before leaving I have a look round Northernhay Gardens, with its war memorial. The daffodils are beginning to fade but red crocuses are still in flower throughout the gardens.