The Power of Seeing

I missed the annual exhibition at Two Temple Place last year but this year’s exhibition on John Ruskin looked interesting, so I found myself there today. Ruskin is a subject I know reasonably well but there was still some new things to learn here; his interest in geology evidenced in his drawing of geological maps, his collection of botanical and nature illustrations from figures like Audubon and his collection of crystal and rock samples or his use of daguerreotype photography to help with his drawing. The exhibition draws from the museum Ruskin established in Sheffield and includes his own paintings and drawings as well as works by followers like John Wharlton Bunney. It’s not quite as extensive as previous exhibitions and space ends up being given to unrelated works from Sheffield, including paintings of the city and portraits of the inhabitants by William Rothenstein.

Food cooked: Chicken with chorizo and cider.

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The Sum of Things

This Christmas in the Midlands, I visit Sunnycroft in Shropshire, one of the few National Trust properties in the area I haven’t been to.A redbrick Victorian villa lead up by an avenue of Redwoods, the interior combines occasional Art Nouveau touches with traditional Victorian decoration. The most impressive aspect is a red painted hallway with a staircase leading up to an upper floor light through a stained glass ceiling. A Christmas tree completes the scene. The Christmas trees at nearby Attingham Park are also something very special. In the hallway, a model train runs round and round the base of one such tree, while in the gallery a flight of origami birds flies around another. Lastly, in the dining room, a teapot sat atop another tree pours out a cascade of fairy lights. Squirrels are everywhere in the grounds, frenziedly digging up and devouring nuts. The following day I go for a walk at Calke Abbey, watching the red deer in the park and a nuthatch on one of its feeders. Lastly, I visit Shugborough where a group of friendly Tamworth pigs are paying a suspicious amount of attention to the workings of the locks on their pens…

Back down south, I visit the V&A’s new photography centre. Covering works by Atkins, Talbot, Atget, Brassai, Muybridge, Many Ray, Langdon-Coburn and Cameron it depicts the history of photography alongside contemporary work. The main thing I love are the stereoscopes, from which you can see fights between 19th century Samuari, Lady Clementina Hawarden’s portrait subjects and the interior of the Crystal Palace.

I’ve read several books this year describing war from the perspective of the women who could not fight in it – West’s Return of the Solider, Brittain’s Testament of Youth and both Fortunes of War (comprising The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy) by Olivia Manning. For both Brittain and Manning, much of this is bound up with how women become aware of their independence. In Manning’s novels, the war itself is elsewhere and it instead depicts its impact on lives and societies at its periphery; Jews living in Romania as it falls to fascism, Egyptians filled with resentment at British colonial rule or just ordinary lives destroyed by it, like Yakimov in the Balkan Trilogy and Aidan and Pinkrose in The Levant Trilogy. It is not until the Levant Trilogy that any of the characters, in this case Simon, have any contact with battle at all. Most of the novels are, if anything, as domestic as an Austen novel, dealing with Harriet’s sense of purposelessness next to her husband’s ceaseless work that excludes her. Harriet and Guy are the only constants in the series, with a huge cast revolving and changing around them.

The Philosopher’s Pupil by Iris Murdoch is an oddity. The novel is narrated by a character called N who only expressly appears in one scene but otherwise serves the same purpose as an omniscient narrator in a 19th century novel. Referring to describing events he did not see, he simply refers cryptically to the help of a lady, in a rather postmodern fashion. Much of the book rather resembles a 19th century novel in its detailed depiction of an imaginary town but there is also an animistic aspect to the realist narration. Foxes appear throughout and are referred to as evil spirits. Characters see portents in nature throughout. Water, whether in the scene where Zed drowns or in the scenes where Rozanov commits suicide in the baths, is an important metaphor. So, too is the underground as with Tom’s descent beneath the baths, with his re-emergence to save Harriet either being like Orpheus or Dante visiting Beatrice, the Dantean injunction to ‘beware all who enter here’ being emblazoned above the entrance at one point. This animism is reflected in Bernard’s final turn to the mystical where “nothing exists except god… and when one has understood that, one knows that there is no god.” The realness and nowness of the sea waves is where the spiritual and material meet. Bernard opposes this to “the impossibility of metaphysics by the intrusion of mortality into the moment by moment conduct of ordinary life.”

The novel demonstrates this in Rozanov’s failure to complete his work, and the undermining of his attempts to orchestrate the lives of those around him. Both Rozanov and his pupil George toy with the Nietzchean idea that after some acts morality becomes unreal and all is permitted; a man then becomes the demon that is god. Throughout, Murdoch portrays philosophy in Buddhist terms as a form of curse; George’s violence is only lifted when he is stripped of such longings for knowledge.

The last book I read in 2018 was Zola’s Doctor Pascal. It’s an odd book in a lot of ways, resembling gothic ficton as much as the naturalist idiom. Pascal develops a rejuvenating injection made from nerve tissue,which rather recalls Shelley and Conan Doyle, while the demise of one character is attributed to spontaneous combustion. It’s also somewhat postmodern in acting as a commentary on the rest of the Rougon-Macquart series; no other character in any of the books is as aware as Pascal of the effects of heredity and the environment on their existence. Pascal embodies many of the central dilemmas in Zola’s fiction. He believes in progress but much of his research is intended to establish that heredity passes the diseased traits of his own family down through the generations; “..races degenerate. There is here a veritable exhaustion, rapid deterioration, as if our family, in their fury of enjoyment, in the gluttonous satisfaction of their appetites, had consumed themselves too quickly.” Pascal constantly struggles to match theory to reality, seeing instead a Darwinian process in which the weak infallibly perish. With Clotilde, Pascal creates a successful experiment to see of the effects of heredity can be overruled by a change in the environment, but his assumption that he is immune from the traits of his own family is disabused by events.

The ending of the novel is equally ambiguous. The destruction of Pascal’s research notes by Felicite is a huge setback for progress (albeit one perversely set off by her establishment of an asylum) and the question of whether Pascal and Clotilde’s child will inherit their worse traits; ” Then, with secret uneasiness, she sought a resemblance to the others, the terrible ancestors, all those whose names were there inscribed on the tree, unfolding its growth of hereditary leaves. Was it this one, or this, or yet this other, whom he would resemble? “

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 Tatanua 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 question of the relationship between arts and crafts has always been a vexed one; why does a Burne Jones painting count as fine art but not a Burne Jones stained glass window? Or a Picasso ceramic or Sonia Delaunay’s fabrics? This is perhaps exacerbated in the case of modernist abstraction where the sort of geometrical patterns often used in decorative art were replicated in the likes of  Mondrian’s work. The Tate’s exhibition on Anni Albers has this at its centre, being dedicated not only to a female artist but entirely to her work in textiles and weaving. The work is heavily influenced by Bauhaus modernism in the first instance and then after her move to Black Mountain by Mexican textiles. Klee is an obvious influence as is her husband, Josef, with their squares of overlapping colour being mirrored in her work. She typically has a constrained palette of often only around four colours, but uses different materials to highlight differences (the use of metallic thread, for example) or brocading them to elevate one material over another to highlight tactile differences.

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.

Finally for 2018, I take a Friday off before Christmas to visit the Wallace Collection’s exhibition on the life of its founder, Richard Wallace. The contents include the horn of St Hubert, Chinese cups used by the Qianlong Emperor and looted from the Summer Palace,an Irish bell relic, Sevres porcelain boxes, a silver Ostrich from Augsburg, Majolica plates and an Ashanti gold mask looted by British troops. Afterwards, I take the chance to visit some of the London churches that are never open at a weekend; St James Spanish Place (a vast Victorian gothic affair), St Peter Vere Street (a Gibbs church, somewhat confusingly featuring Burnes Jones stained glass) and the Grosvenor Chapel.

Simone Weil’s On the Abolition of all Political Parties shares some parts of its analysis with Arendt’s On Totalitarianism; Arendt viewed the broad church Anglo-American parties as less disposed to extremism than their much more cohesive European counterparts. Weil also sees European parties as being worse than their Anglo-American counterparts, although she takes the view that ultimately all such parties enforce conformism and inflame collective irrationality. Recent events would suggest Weil was closer to the heart of the matter than Arendt. As nationalism and increasingly polarised political extremes has risen throughout the world, European parties used to compromising with each other initially acted to preserve the political centre and lock out extremes. By contrast, Anglo-American parties already had significant bodies of opinion in favour of more extremist outlooks. The use of relative open nomination systems such as primaries equally facilitated extremist take-overs of the main parties; while the use of closed first past the post electoral systems acted to prevent any competition from the former centre once that was undertaken (therefore preventing the rise of any Anglo-American equivalent to the French En Marche). As a thesis this has its limits; in Austria and Italy the centre has now been either subverted or displaced as thoroughly its has been in the US or the UK. Equally, it’s entirely unclear how any form of meaningful  Nonetheless, any idea that the Anglo-American party model was better able to withstand the rise of extremist politics seems fundamentally misplaced.

Edmund White’s Our Young Man uses the device of the Dorian Gray mythos to explore gay history. Its ever young central character Guy is a model, and therefore effectively a blank canvas upon which different meanings can be projected over time. Throughout, Guy can be interpreted at will to be either a cipher in the face of events or a ruthless and manipulative intriguer. Partly, this can be attributed to White’s interest in Foucault’s ideas of the self; for example, time in prison transforms Andres from an academic to a thug while despite being twins Kevin and Chris pursue entirely different paths. But equally, as age catches up with Guy, there’s the sense that such matters aren’t infinitely malleable and that he has to decide who is.

Jean Genet’s aesthetic is well known to be that essentially valorises evil; theft, murder and homosexuality are described throughout his work in frequently adulatory terms. However, in Funeral Rites this becomes problematic at the point it intersects with a concept of politics, specifically in the narrator’s love for both a resistance fighter and a Nazi soldier. In some ways, this should not be too surprising; Sontag’s Fascinating Fascism made clear long ago the tendency to fetishise the oppressive, even when those doing so were frequently marginalised group who formed its principal victims. There’s little sense of the gays who ended their lives in concentration camps in Genet, as he depicts the Nazi soldiers fucking male French collaborators. But there is some form of normative concept of morals that is often absent in Genet, a sense of guilt and shame as well as a clear demonstration of the consequences of the occupation.

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.