The Cult of Beauty

The VAamp;A’s cult of beauty exhibition is the latest in a long line of exhibitions in recent years to dwell on the Victorians and the Pre-Raphaelites. The description of late Victorian art as belonging to an aesthetic movement was coined by Walter Hamilton in 1882. But as Hamilton conceded, it was never really a movement in the sense of a cohesive group. As such, the exhibition tends to include a fairly heterogeneous range, placing Moore and Whistler are placed alongside Burne Jones and Morris. Where Whistler consented to the Paterite dictum that all art aspires to the condition of music, Morris took a more politicised approach to art, partly under Ruskin’s influence. Where Morris and Burne Jones looked to mythology and medievalism to escape modern industrialism, Whistler painted impressionistic scenes of bridges over the Thames. It ultimately seems difficult to accept too much equivalence between the women Moore drew simply to show the fabrics they were wearing and allegories from the likes of Watts. In fairness, the exhibition does well in showing the contradictory attitudes expressed at the time towards aestheticism, from Gilbert and Sullivan’s swipe at ‘greenery-yallery’ or Punch cartoons directed at Oscar Wilde. It also does well in placing Victorian art in its overall design context, showing Whistler’s peacock room and his porcelain collection, paintings of Alma-Tadema’s rooms and a recreation of Rossetti’s rooms, placing designers like Godwin, De Morgan and Crane at the centre of the movement.

At the Tate, the Joan Miro exhibition seems somewhat underwhelming. Much of his early work is redolent of symbolism, with Catalan landscapes at once shown realistically and as a set of calligraphic glyphs but it lacks the mythological quality of Dali’s later works, the repeated depictions of ladders leading to heaven notwithstanding. The later work recalls Pollock and Rothko, with giant triptych canvases filled with only a few colours or spattered with stochastic paint patterns. His most successful work is probably the mid-period Constellations series or his burnt canvases.

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Animal Farm

My first chance to go anywhere this year was a rather dark and cold trip to West Wycombe church. The mock-Palmyran interior seems rather forlorn in the dim light of an English winter. I’d forgotten about the snake curling its way around the stand on the wooden font towards the doves at the top or the Flemish glass in one window. Outside, red kites turn somersaults in the air. The English winter seems to befit Waverley Abbey rather better; the ruins stand by a river accompanied by a range of pillboxes and dragon’s teeth from the second world war.

A few weeks ago I’d visited Oxford. Walking around North Oxford past rows of gothic castles contorted into modest little buildings, I realised how much the Victorians must have changed the face of the city. This seems particularly so when I walk into Worcester College’s chapel. Not one of Oxford’s more famed buildings, as presumably the exuberant interior design by Burges is rather too florid for many tastes; for example, the pews all have carved animals ranging from the customary lions and unicorns to rhinos, dodos and sperm whales. I decide to look at some more of the buildings Burges designed and Cardiff Castle seems the obvious place to start. Accordingly, the following weekend I find myself stepping through the doors of Cardiff’s art deco central train station. The city seems unusual for the sheer number of arcades that form warrens between its streets, some curving sinuously around other buildings. I look at the animal wall before entering the castle; lions, seals, pelicans, lynxes, bears and vultures are all depicting scaling the walls. Similarly, the interior shows monkeys reading, pigs playing the bagpipes and a strange stork whose tail ends in a serpent’s head playing the trumpet. It would be easy to read much of this as a satirical catholic comment on Darwinism but the effect equally seems to veer somewhere between Carollean surrealism and paganism. The castle itself rather reminds me of Neuschwanstein or the Leighton House, all hyperreal fantasies designed to facilitate escape from the modern age. Just as arts & crafts houses were built with the comforts of gas lighting, so the reconstructed Roman walls had corridors built into them to allow walking in poor weather. I walk onwards through Bute Park towards LLandaff and the cathedral. Daffodils, Cherries, Tulips and Hyacinths are all in flower. Looking out from what looks like a pleasant village green, complete with war memorial, the cathedral is below beneath the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace. Unlike Winchester, Salisbury or Lichfield it sits within a hollow, which gives it the air of a parish church. In practice, the building is rather large and has a rich variety of styles; romanesque arches above the doorways, gothic arches, Pre-Raphaelite reredos and stained glass, more stained glass by Piper and a modernist sculpture by Epstein that hangs on a concrete arch above the nave.

Backtracking towards Cathays Park, I have a look at the art gallery. The atrium has some rather odd sculptures; a crusading knight flanked by Tommies from the first world war as well as an odd triptych derived from Bachelard. Not the best collection but not without interest; a Salvator Rosa landscape, Panini landscapes and a pair of Hogarths. Some attention is given to a pair of Welsh painters I wasn’t familiar; Thomas Jones (I particularly like his romantic The Last Bard) and Richard Wilson’s landscapes of Wales and Italy. Scenes of travellers beset by bandits undermine the picturesque aspect of the landscape. The Victorian section proves to be quite good, with painting by Madox-Brown, Millais, Tissot and quite a few John Brett landscapes. A Welsh landscapes gallery has a few especially impressive paintings by Piper, Kyffin Williams, Lowry and Lionel Walden’s Steel Works, Cardiff at Night. Finally, there’s a small impressionist exhibition; the usual Monet lilies as well as some of his Venice paintings, Cezanne and Manet still lives and some Rodin sculptures. Leaving, I walk back towards the Bay. The street I walk along is lined with boarded-up houses, betraying a rather familiar story. By contrast, the Bay itself is a glittering illustration of the Bilbao effect, with the steel fountain tower and the Millennium Centre. I find myself rather liking the centre; the revival of the Roman tradition of inscriptions on public buildings in combination with the use of traditional Welsh materials like Slate make it a rather ‘readerly’ building. Regrettably, there isn’t time for a ride on the merry-go-round by the Pierhead building and I have to turn back to the train station.

I’ve finished reading Gaskell’s Ruth. As a novel this begins in a similar vein to Eliot; "the traditions of these bygone times, enable one to understand more clearly the circumstances whcih contributed to the formation of character." Nonetheless, Ruth like Silas Marner or The Scarlet Letter is a particularly good example of the tension between the novel and the romance. As a novel, it operates within the constraints of a specific place and time, as well as of causality; Ruth and Benson’s deceptions are inevitably found out and duly castigated. As a romance, it plays out a fantasy of moral redemption that is dependent on those deceptions ("our telling a lie has been the saving of her"). By the same token, much of that redemption is attributable to empathy and natural feeling ("I do believe Leonard’s father is a bad man and yet I live him… it was one of the faults of her nature to be ready to… value affection almost above its price"); but it is surely the simple absence of a sense of duty in Bellingham that leads to Ruth’s downfall as much as an absence of empathy. The result is that the novel does have a rather polyphonic conception of morality; "she has turned wrong into right and right into wrong… the sophistry by which I persuaded myself that wrong could be right."

By contrast, Moore’s Esther Waters depicts the same subject in a naturalistic manner without reference to the romance or to fables; while Esther struggles in life there is no tragic demise or moral redemption ahead for her. Nonetheless, some of his ambivalence towards his subject isn’t dissimilar from Gaskell’s; both Esther and Ruth’s innocence is responsible for their respective downfalls. Moore’s attitude towards religion initially seems much more critical than Gaskell’s "it’s a strange thing that religion should make some people so unfeeling… religion is easy enough at times , but there is other times when it don’t seem to fit in witha body’s duty… I haven’t forgotten God but must do my duty to my husband" an attitude later re-iterated towards Fred and the Salvation Army’s prosecution of the betting at the pub, with William viewing them as puritans. Nonetheless, if Esther is given no deathbed conversion, William does undergo one, coming to accept that the betting that had supported his family had been wrong, even as Esther’s disapproval becomes rather blunted in its severity; "she had always disapproved of the betting… there was a great deal in life which one couldn’t approve of.. there were worse places than the King’s Head."

Food cooked: Black miso chicken, Fabada, Jerk chicken with spicy potato salad, Bakewell tart, Tanzanian Fish Curry, Goulash with Czech Dumplings, Romanian lemon cake, Roe and bacon spaghetti, Greek fish with orange and pine nuts, Pork with Prague-style stuffing, Catalan Duck with Pears, Salmon and Feta Spaghetti, Pan fried Roman lamb, Chicken Donburi, Tarragona seafood stew, Lone Star Steak, Burgers with blue cheese and gherkins, Cholent, Damson Gin, Glögg, Swedish potato salad, Duck with Ponzu dressing, Czech rabbit with cream sauce, Ostend fish gratin, Fish stew and sour cream mash, Lamb shanks with beans, Han hock with honey and mustard, Waterzooi de volaille a’la gantoise.

The Dream Hunters

As autumn descends and the ivy turns to a vivid burgundy and the tree leaves turns to burnished bronze or arterial crimson, I visited London and the Millais exhibition at the Tate. The choice of subject seems apt for the season, with several paintings like Mariana and Autumn Leaves allegorising the life of man through the seasons.

The Pre-Raphaelite movement is a classic example of the reactionary tendency in English culture, along with the Gothic Revival and Palladian architecture. English painting sought to return to medieval models, depicting nature with obsessive precision, at a time when European art was beginning to forge movements like impressionism and expressionism. Equally, the brotherhood was founded in the year of The Communist Manifesto but although Millais seems to have made many satirical (somewhat Hogarthian) drawings of contemporary society, none of them were transferred to canvas. Unlike Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England, Millais retreats to a mythical past. Like much of Victorian culture, the Pre-Raphaelites can perhaps be best understood as a means of withdrawing from an industrialised society to a romanticised past, looting models freely from different periods (the subjects displayed at the Millais exhibition range from Pizarro’s conquest of the Incas to Renaissance Florence and Medieval England). It lacks any sense of expressing the collective consciousness of its age and seems instead to point to a lacuna. The sense of a void becomes painful in several of his later society portraits and grotesquely sentimental paintings of children; one can only be surprised that Little Nell evaded him as a subjects. Whereas contemporaries like Burne Jones and Watts devised stained glass and frescos for churches, Millais sold his pictures for soap adverts and painted portraits of the haute bourgeoisie.

However, with all of that said, much remains to be said in defence of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Millais’ sympathy for outsiders dominates his early paintings; Jacobite rebels, exiled Huguenots, heretics and vagrants. His women are alternately depicted as passive victims of the men that abandon them, but also have to be shown in terms of their stoic fortitude. Much of his work, such as The Bridesmaid, seems to look forward to the likes of Moreau, Klimt and Albert Moore. The iallusive quality of his later works, freed of explicit depictions of historical or literary scenes seem to parallel Bocklin and David Friedrich. The Pre-Raphaelite stress on literary allusions, with references to Tennyson, Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge, comes close to a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.

The initial rooms of the exhibition concentrate on showing the development of the early Millais to his Pre-Raphaelite work. His first major work is Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru, a picture that veers uneasily between historical epic and the later depictions of the victims of Catholic oppression, a Massacre of the Innocents The early Pre-Raphaelite works also quickly draw attention to the idea of the excluded and outcast; doomed love in Isabella, Ophelia, Mariana and The Death of Romeo and Juliet. A drawing showing the disinterrment of Queen Mathilda by Huguenot fanatics was presumably too sympathetic and Catholicism and was never painted. The (infamous) painting of Christ in the House of his Parents seems oddly realistic in comparison to the other works, as does The Order of Release, wherein the soldier’s wife stands tall while her son and husband are huddled against her, inverting the model used in A Huguenot on St Bartholomew’s Day. In a similar vein is The Proscribed Royalist where a somewhat effeminate cavalier is hidden by a puritan lover and in Peace Concluded where a wounded soldier returned from the Crimea is held by his wife. The sexual politics of Millais’ painting are endlessly confusing; his depictions of women with persecuted men require them to be strong and resilient (although the atttitude in The Black Brunswicker is simply one of female helplessness even as the strong soldier shown is certain to die) but he is as likely to show them abandoned and betrayed, as in Waiting. One painting, The Escape of a Heretic is entirely different; showing a female heretic being rescued by a lover from the clutches of the Inquisition. Again, his drawings show what his paintings can’t’ The Bridge of Sighs depicts a fallen woman contemplating suicide.

The later works show Millais moving to looser brush strokes in a style more reminiscent of Titian or Velasquez, depicting subjects without explicit comment and with only the suggestion of context. Backgrounds are frequently blackened out to show the subject. Works like Spring and The Vale of Rest having a nonetheless rather crudely symbolised theme of mortality. Where historical subjects are shown, the results are often depressingly remniscent of much forgettable genre painting (Reynolds and Van Dyck emerge as influences at this point), although a painting like Esther continues the theme of female fortitude and courage. The most interesting works from this time onwards, are his Scottish landscapes which in their depicition of solitary figures in wintry scenes leaves me strongly reminded of Caspar David Friedrich, for instance in Dew Drenched Furze and Glen Birnam.

Leaving the exhibition, I spend a little time looking at the permanent collection, from Rossetti’s The Annunciation and The Beloved, Holman Hunt’s Claudio and Isabella and The Awakening Conscience , Hughes’ The Eve of St Agnes , Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge and Moore’s The Toilette and A Sleeping Girl. It does seem to me that Millais has at least some claim to be a via media between Hunt and Hughes on the one hand and Whistler and Moore on the other, while his woman are surely not simply objects in the way they always seem to be for Rossetti. I also find myself looking at more unusual works like John Brett’s seascapes, Watts’ Hope, Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose and Tuke’s August Blue, but I’m most struck by Richard Dadd’s paintings; although not dissimilar to the Pre-Rapahelites in style and fitting in with Victorian conventions of fairy paintings, his work does nonetheless seem more like Bosch.

I then decide to look at the modern section. Some of the individual works are quite startling here; Sickert’s Brighton Pierrots, Heron’s Azalea Garden: May 1956, Hitchens’ Woodland, Vertical and Horizontal, Hepworth’s Curved Form (Trevalgan), Vanesssa Bell’s Studland Beach and Gertler’s Merry-Go-Round. I find myself particularly drawn to the room dedicated to John Piper’s works, from his Britten set paintings (Death in Venice) to his work as a war artist (All Saints Chapel, Bath) to his Betjeman-like recordings of historic buildings (Holkham, Norfolk, Yarnton Monument) – although rather conventional subjects depicted in uncomprosingly modern terms. Another room dwells on war art, with results that seem quite surrealist – whether by intent or simply through elapsed time is difficult to say; Armstrong’s Coggeshall Church, Essex looks like a dissection rather than a ruin while Nash’s Bomber in the Corn and The Messerschmidt in Windsor Great Park almost look like totems. Sutherland’s Devastation, 1941 series is perhaps the most conventional depiction of destruction and decay, although his Horned Forms contrives to turn the organic into something threatening and unnatural. Finally, a small exhibition is dedicated to Hockney’s selection of Turner’s paintings. I hadn’t realised that Turner is in many respects an architectural painter, with Lichfield Cathedral, St George’s Bloomsbury and Durham Cathedral all amongst his English subjects, while some of his Venetian work is dedicated to Canaletto’s architectural fantasias. Hockney also has a collection on one of the stair wells; paintings of English woodland from different times of the year. I then walk from Tate Britain to Tate Modern, mostly to see the giant metal spider on display outside the gallery. Although given an artistic subtext it mostly reminds me of the metal sculpture of the invading Martians at Woking.

Reading Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars I was particularly reminded of Umberto Eco’s observations about the medieval quest for the prelapsarian language that had existed before the Tower of Babel. The dictionary seems equally preoccupied with the loss of language’s capacity to represent certitude in the midst of a series of mirrored dichotomies; dream and reality, good and evil, male and female (as with the male and female editions of the text), life and death, all of which are blurred in the course of the text. Where Eco is interested in semiotic playfulness almost as an end in its own right, Pavic seems to envisage differance in mystical terms, as a means of representing man’s fallen state (perhaps Habermas was right to call Derrida a Jewish mystic). He then complicates these chiastic divisions by enfolding them into a tripartite structure; Christian, Islamic and Jewish, with each dictionary having mirrored entries (either the same entry told from a fundamentally different viewpoint or the convergence of three different but related characters), the division between which is also blurred (with the idea of each religion being an aspect of the other two). The text also foregrounds the issue of interpretation, with every character who comes close to understanding the history of the Khazars being punished Icarus-like.

Einzelgängerheit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bleak Midwinter

Worcester cathedral was built with a mix of stones; something grey, sometimes red sandstone. Although placed in the heart of the city, the Cathedral Close still has a rather self contained feel to it, as one passed through Edgar’s Tower and enters a complex of ruins where halls and other monastic buildings once stood. A watergate remains, something that only serves to emphasise the self contained character of the cathedral. The most interesting aspect of the interior is undoubtedly the Norman crypt begun by Bishop Wulfstan in a style reminiscent of Repton. Similarly, the tombs are especially striking, such as the Beauchamp tomb with its black swans or the ornate gothic tomb for Prince Arthur. The rest of the cathedral shows the evidence of Gilbert Scott’s restoration, such as the painted ceiling. A graveyard is placed in the centre of the cloisters (monks who has tended the garden would once have been buried there) while figures from English history are depicted on stained glass in the arches. The town itself is a mixture of Queen Anne (such as the Guildhall and Hospital with its heraldic white swans), Georgian and Victorian buildings. The majority of the church towers are in red sandstone, excepting one where a grey baroque tower had been built onto an earlier gothic foundation. Another exception is the slender grey spire of St Andrew’s, which rises far above the other buildings and rivals the cathedral. A Victorian structure, the building is nonetheless a ruin; nothing remains except the tower.

The Priory Church in Great Malvern rather resembles a cathedral as well, though there is something more colourful about its external appearance, with its patchwork red, yellow and grey stones. The stained glass is also a patchwork of fragments dating back to the time of Richard the Third. Victorian minton tiling sits alongside the original medieval designs it was based on. There’s also some new windows stained in a more impressionistic style. The round arches on the interior date back to the Saxon period, sitting alongside baroque monuments and a chantry chapel containing medieval stone tombs.

The church of St Mary the Virgin in Ingestre, has the distinction of being the sole Wren church outside London. Although the stone is duller than the city churches, the building that stands next to Ingestre’s Carolean hall is recognisably of the same design (particularly to St Mary Somerset). The interior is decorated with plaster carvings, Gibbons woodwork and Burne-Jones stained glass, showing blood dripping from a pelican onto Adam and Eve, who bear crimson halos and wings. Unusually, the marble monuments have been painted and gilded. Nearby in Hoar Cross, Holy Angels is GF Bodley’s miniature cathedral standing stop a hill and surveying the valley beneath. Yews line the walk to the door, while winged gargoyles look down the roof, statues stare ahead from their niches and lonely stone angels on the graves stare at the sky. The church of St Paul in nearby Burton on Trent where it sits adjacent to the town hall, is also by Bodley and shows a similar style. More unusual is the church of St Modwen in the marketplace there. It’s tower is blackened but is still in a recognisably baroque style. The interior is also quite unusual, with plain stone columns and round arches lining the nave, while the altar and sanctuary are ‘high baroque.’ Filled with dead leaves when I visited, the churchyard looks out over the then flooded river Trent and is filled with elaborate tombs. Finally, the church of St John the Baptist in Croxall presented an especially melancholy prospect. It stands high on a hill, above the river Trent next to the local hall. Like St Modwen, the churchyard was filled with elaborate eighteenth and nineteenth century tombs and framed with fallen leaves and bare tree branches. But the tombs here have fallen into desuetude; a celtic cross tips over as it sinks into the earth while the walls of box tombs crumble. The church is also in a poor condition; the windows are broken and the crudely repaired walls patched with brick seem less than steady.

Visiting Kensal Green Cemetery last spring, the central avenue was hidden in shade beneath the trees that lined it. In winter, the leaves had fallen and the grandiose tombs felt oddly naked and bereft. The decay of the tombs was also far more evident; since my last visit a section of the outer wall had collapsed and the resulting breach made it feel far more ramshackle than before. Since I wasn’t as distracted by the novelty of the architecture this time, I also noticed far more that most of the modern graves were from other countries; Ethiopia, Yugoslavia or Greece. It seems oddly appropriate given the pagan symbolism of much of the funerary architecture, from Egyptian to Roman and Greek. I wondered if this reflects the increasingly multi-ethnic character of London or whether it was simply that people from these countries were more likely to be drawn to the same traditions that its Victorian creators were. Many of the more modern tombs also seem to display a sentimental and trivial approach to death, with cuddly toys left on the them, that were at odds with the cold stone that surrounds them. I also notice a jay perched on a nearby tomb, a pigeon nestles on a quatrefoil above a tomb door and a squirrel disappears through a tomb wall. Afterwards, I move on to walk around Camden market, somewhere else with Victorian roots that has given way to a more multi-ethnic London. Or at least so that might seem; despite the oriental food stalls and melting pot atmosphere, the predominant aspect is of white counter-culture; gothic clothes, new age and punk. The following weekend was occupied with Mapledurham church with its diamond patterned redbrick and flint by Butterfield (the house’s original chantry chapel with alabaster tombs remains alongside the gothic revival building). Later, I visit St John’s Gate, a hyperreal Victorian interpretation of a medieval Priory, even down to its reinvention of the Knights Hospitalier as a chivalric order in keeping with the Victorian emphasis on medieval tradition. I also returned to Limehouse churchyard, which was covered in a carpet of purple crocuses and daffodils.

Hockney as an artist always seems to me to be oddly hollow, someone who flits through different styles and media while the essential subjects remain the same, both in terms of the people being depicted and how they are depicted. Self-portrait with Blue Guitar shows him drawing naturalistically while all the objects around are shown in abstract terms that reference Picasso. Picasso recurs in his photographic collages, simultaneously showing the same subjects from different angles and at slightly different times. Conversely, his portraits combine modernist techniques (the collages recalling Cubism, his portrait of Divine recalling Matisse) with a surprising traditionalism; the portraits of his mother and lover against deep blue patterned backgrounds is heavily reminiscent of the Holbein paintings I had seen earlier, while a picture of the artist at work deliberately echoes Velasquez and Las Meninas. For all of this, there’s a fundamental similarity to his work. His My Parents shows his mother staring out of the canvas at the viewer while his father sits at right angles to her. They are separated by a table where a vase of flowers stands (a favourite prop). Similarly, his portrait of Fred and Marcia Weisman shows her staring at the viewer while he stands at right angles to her, separated by one of the art objects they collected. The painting of Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott shows Geldzahler sat looking at the viewer while Scott, wearing a coat as if about to leave, stands at right angles to him (a glass table with a vase full of flowers rests in the foreground). Although his painting of Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool is the most famous work, a later one finds Schlesinger sat alone, slightly at right angles to the viewer but still staring back, the pose used on Divine. Later, I walk around the National Portrait Gallery – I still think it an institution more marked for its commitment to historical narrative than to artistic excellence but I was struck by Roger Fry’s portrait of Edward Carpenter, showing him in a spartan interior and his reflection only half visible in a mirror, leaving his figure to nonetheless dominates the room.

The BBC adaptation of Dracula was surprisingly original. It bends the novel to fit the conventions of the horror film (as with the deaths of Harker and Holmwood), but foregrounds the theme of occultism (rather reminding me of Huysman’s The Damned) and the more obvious theme of syphilis, as opposed to Coppola’s Faustian interpretation of the role of plague in Herzog’s film. It did occur to me that the renewed ‘threat’ of immigration from Eastern Europe has given the novel a new resonance; this is after all the year Romania joined the European Union. Volver is a welcome return to the the camp humour and magical realism of Almodovar’s earlier films, especially What Have I Done to Deserve this? (whose plot it resembles), combining this with the Hitchcockian plotting of Mala educacion. Children of Men falls uneasily between the apocalyptic and political genres, failing to formulate a consistent political critique on the one hand while failing to abstract those concerns into the the nihilism demanded by the former genre. Every part of the film refers to minor extrapolations of what can be seen in daily news broadcasts; low fertility rates, ethnic violence, immigration, state authoritarianism, terrorism etc.

Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico finds him once more enraptured by male beauty during Indian dances while only noticing the women’s clothing; "the men are naked to the waist.. they are handsome, and absorbed with a deep rhythmic absorption." In describing the Indian culture, he celebrates themes of unity in a manner that is reminiscent of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ("creation is a great flood, for ever flowing. in lovely and terrible waves. In everything the shimmer of creation and never the finality of the created") but as with Pirsig, the narrator figures as an outsider throughout (something emphasised by the absence of Frieda from the domestic setting), even finding himself uncomfortable with the presence of tourist crowds at the Hopi snakedance. Last Words by William Burroughs, reminded me of TS Eliot’s complaint that Blake had concocted his philosophy from bits and bobs left around the house. Throughout, Burroughs reads an assortment of mystical and conspiracy theory writings designed to gull the credulous. He dotes on his cats and his collection of guns (reminding me of Self’s waspish comment that Burroughs hated women and loved guns).

Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry presents a fable of a rootless man like Rudin ("you’re a thinking man – and yet you lie around… you’re all well-heeled layabouts.. this ecstasy of boredom is the ruin of the Russian people"), which is complicated by a rival fable of rural virtue and urban corruption. The Russian admiration of the peasantry complicates a novel that could easily have become a narrative of individual damnation like Madame Bovary and instead gains a sense of the diminishing effect of the environment that has more in common with The Return of the Native or Ethan Frome. For example, Mikhalevich exhorts Lavretsky to work on the land and to concern himself with the welfare of his peasants, a fate that ultimately only manifests itself as a form of punishment. Russia destroys its own children and those that linger too long, such as Lemm’s death in impecunious exile, feeling like "a fish out of water". Although Lavretsky and Panshin differ on issues of westernisation and slavophilia, neither worldview is material to their respective fates in the narrative which effectively share the same end; "we’re sick because we’ve only become half-European; we must cure ourselves with more of what has made us sick." The realist context of the novel with its complex of patterning of economic, social and political strands is thus at odds with a metaphysical theme that sees life in Schopenhauerian terms; "he had actually ceased to think about personal happiness… he had become tranquil"

Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs is unusual in American fiction for its emphasis on community and place (the very name being reminiscent of Middlemarch (the statement at the end of Marsh Rosemary being akin to that at the end of Middlemarch) or Cranford). Men figure throughout as objects of ridicule or of cruelty (Captain Littlepage and the pompous Minister that visits Joanna on the one hand, or Joanna’s betrayer himself on the other) in contrast to the supportive community of women symbolised by Mrs Todd and her mother; "Mrs Blackett was of those who do not live to themselves, and who have long since passed the line that divides mere self-concern from a valued share in whatever society can give or take" (although events like Mrs Todd knocking the Minister down do challenge ideas about gender, Jewett is essentially a traditionalist on this score, blaming William for lack of ambition in a way no female character would be treated). Nonetheless, the location of Dunnet next to the sea introduces themes that recall Melville more than Austen. Both men and women yearn for the sea ("a far-off look that sought the horizon… inherited by girls and boys alike") and the novel foregrounds themes of individual isolation repeatedly, as with Joanna again ("doomed from the first to fall into melancholy… ’twas her poor lot") or the neighbours that never see one another from one year to the next ("for three generations the people had not spoken to each other even in times of sickness or death or birth"). Joanna’s role is given to a male character in The King of Folly Island, where it is his daughter once more that stands for the feminine social virtues. Fishermen are portrayed as being at one with nature ("you felt almost as if a landmark pine should suddenly address you") more than with humanity, while the community is made up of women, but in stories like The White Heron this is reversed and it is women who are seen as being at one with nature (as with Mrs Todd’s herbal medicines being opposed to the Doctor’s remedies).

Whereas the realist novel typically works by assuming an empirical worldview, contrasting the individual consciousness against the social setting, Jacques the Fatalist operates in the conditional tense, continually disrupting linear narrative with a series of what if ‘butterfly effect’ discursions and interruptions. This feeds into the dialogic character of the novel, where the narrator simply notes of the debates between Jacques and his master; "and they were both right… has not everyone his own character, according to which he either exaggerates or attenuates everything?" The repeated interjections from the narrator also emphasise the fictionality of events and their arbitrary character. Diderot accepts Hume’s critique of the reliability of the evidence of the common senses but is less certain when it comes to Hume’s critique of causality. Throughout, Diderot uses ambiguous language ("what is written up above.. is it we who controls Destiny or Destiny which controls us?") to describes Jacques’s fatalism, leaving it unclear whether a mechanistic materialism (adopting Spinoza’s ideas over Hume’s; "good brings bad after it and bad brings good") or a sense of religious destiny is being described (for instance, the idea of providence leading Jacques’s brother into the Lisbon earthquake accords with a religious satire along the same lines as Voltaire’s Candide).

Prevost’s Manon Lescaut is like the works of Defoe and Fielding, episodic in nature rather than operating a linear narrative; events proceed through coincidence and accident rather than by causality. The characters of the novel accordingly vary with the circumstance; Manon being devoted and fickle by turns. Although the narrative is cast in the form of a fable, there is no redemption or repentance anymore than there is damnation ("a craven little soul, so devoid of feeling, that he could not see the humiliation of it… or else a christian… I was neither one thing or the other"), with Des Grieux even arguing that his love for Manon is akin to religious devotion or that it is unexceptional when one considers "that a mistress is nothing to be ashamed of nowadays." Prevost also suggests that Des Grieux’s crimes are not of his own making; "knowing neither the mad lust for money.. nor the fantastic notions of hnour that had turned my father into an enemy." The novel is fundamentally a sentimental one, valuing natural emotion over the unnatural morals of his father, something that further serves to distort the moral fable at the novel’s core.

De Nerval’s writing is deeply embued with German metaphysics but nonetheless represents a point where the death of god leaves sublimity undermined by melancholy (Nerval’s Aurelia, his Beatrice, is imagined as Durer’s Angel of Melancholy). Whereas earlier Romantic aesthetics emphasised the ability to intuit the noumenal through the phenomenal in brief epiphanies, Nerval foregrounds the question of the potentially subjective and misleading character of such spots of time, both through his emphasis on the difficulty of distinguishing the real from the metaphysical and through the foregrounding of his insanity and experience of the asylum. For example, in The King of Bedlam, Spifame’s imaginings of himself as the king lead to his being placed in the asylum only for him to end up leading a parallel existence to the monarch as he lives in luxury and has most of dictats implemented; "Spifame could recognise himself in a mirror or dream, he could take stock of himself even as he changed roles and personalities." Sanity and reason exist in a strangely liminal relationship rather than as opposites in Nerval; his characters remain aware of themselves even as they lose themselves. Similarly, in The Tale of Caliph Hakim, the sultan emerges first as the double of himself, sane even while mistaken for a lunatic, only to realise that he has a double he had been unaware of. The ruin strewn landscape of Sylvie (set in a landscape associated with Rousseau) similar emerges as a place of mistaken identities where neither the phenomenal nor the noumenal can be taken for certain; "but how could I be sure I was not merely the victim of one more illusion.. such are the chimeras that beguile and misguide us." Travelling to the Orient, Nerval found it too quotidian ("the Orient is no longer the land of marvels") and prefers his friends’s opera set designs, travelling to Paris, Nerval found it a land of fantasy in contrast to British realism. His masterpiece, Aurelia, continues this: "the overflow of dream into real life… Spirit from the external world suddenly takes on the bodily shape of an ordinary woman." although at one point after a vision of the afterlife, Nerval proclaims that there is a god, he elsewhere proclaims that there is no god ("the virgin is dead and all prayers are useless… there is no god, god is no more!") and that he is god ("I myself was god, trapped in some sorry incarnation"), with the additional complication of his frequently esoteric view of religion, which has more in common with the druze than with christianity. Nerval is plagued throughout by his own double, as well as the question of whether his beloved exists as spirit or simply as a lost love, whether is insanity is precisely that or simply a form of vision. Throughout, Aurelia, opposites are overturned and nothing is left stable; everything is swallowed by the black sun.

Baudelaire’s poetry reminded me of Arnold’s line about "alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night." Where Arnold’s response to the death of god is comparatively straightforward, Baudelaire’s is considerably more complex. Since his work is essentially symbolic, the symbol always seems to lack something stable to represent so that his Hymn to Beauty asks "did you come from the depths of heaven or up from the pit?" (just as Horreur Sympathetique speaks of how "your shafts of light are the reflection of hell") suggesting that clear knowledge of the noumenal is beyond the poet. The result is that his poetry is over-signified, being replete with meaning. At times, his stance seems to be akin to that of Arnold, of a poet caught in a world without the divine (the line about "my soul tossed.. on a monstrous, shoreless sea" in The Seven Old Men having more than a passing resemblance to Dover Beach), at other times his mythology remains essentially christian ("a damned man without a lamp" in Abel and Cain) and at others he resembles Blake, feeling sympathy for the devil (in The Irremediable there is "an angel, unwary traveller tempted by the love of the misshapen… as if it were reproaching god" while in The Rebel there is "a furious angel… but the damned rebel always answers "I won’t!" Finally, Abel and Cain speaks pf throwing god down upon the earth). Baudelaire’s poetry owkrs by overthrowing oppositions between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, company and isolation as he writes in Crowds that "the poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able at will to be himself and someone else."

Zola’s The Earth bears a surprising resemblance to Hardy’s novels (Nenesse is described as being proud of his roots as if he were a tree, centering the issues of place and displacement in exactly the same way Hardy does); both situate their characters within a rural environment that is being displaced by modern industry and commerce, both present their characters in quasi-Darwinian terms of their connection to nature, and both present them in terms of their struggle for existence. Zola’s propensity for biological explanations of human behaviour is dominant here, with characters repeatedly described as animals (Buteau is "like soem great carnivorous beast") while only Lequeu is seen in more environmental terms in so far as his education has left him deracinated ("a country boy who through education had become imbued with a hatred for his class. he used to brutalise his pupils who he called savages" – a hatred it should be said that Zola shares as all of the educated characters despise the peasantry). Although the novel is replete with references to the oppression of the peasantry, there is something distant too it in so far as the peasants are described as being too lazy to take any effective action. The novel accordingly lacks the political engagement in Germinal and events effectively play out their own logic without reference to the overall social context in the way that Zola’s urban novels tend to. Modern innovations are frequently seen as immaterial in the country so that Hourdequin’s agricultural improvements simply breakdown and avail him little in spite of his predictions that the French soil is dying of exhaustion without them. Further intimations of decline, such as talk of declining faith and the villager’s indifference to the absence of a priest equally prove themselves as irrelevances as the customary pattern of things reasserts itself for reasons of nothing more than social convention.

White’s A Fringe of Leaves presents an especially interesting dialectic between civilisation and nature. The protagonist and her dual identities of Ellen Guyas and Mrs Roxburgh represents both of these aspects, rendering the disjunction between individual consciousness and the environment in the novel rather inconsistent. On the one hand, the novel depicts women as vulnerable and dependent on men; the murder of Garnet Roxburgh’s and Chance’s wives, while it is the modern Eve (the title being an implied reference to Genesis), Ellen, who best survives the expulsion from Eden, as her civilised husband is killed. The novel seems to constantly refer to Pygmalion; Ellen is both rescued from her wild early life by her husband but later comes to depend on that part of her nature after the shipwreck.

Niedzviecki’s Hello, I’m Special presents an argument I have much sympathy with; that in a culture where individuality and rebellion are continually lauded as socially desirable, rebellion and individuality cease to be meaningful. Partly, Niedzviecki’s concerns stem from a feeling that modern culture lacks a means to engender consent, but the argument seems confused on this score; the rebels he presents living on isolated islands are surely part of the same culture of rugged individualism in the United States that goes back to Thoreau and which has its trite expression in the films and music Niedzviecki denounces, rather than being a genuine expression of something the mainstream is faking. Equally, Niedzviecki notes that religious traditionalism may be more rebellious than commonly accepted ideas of rebellion, although his arguments invariably proves sufficiently elastic than almost anything can be regarded as a manifestation of ‘individualistic conformity,’ even when he himself notes that modern society is both homogenous and conformist.

Food cooked: Tiramisu, Baron of Hare, Vietnamese chicken with coconut, Singapore Laksa, Chinese chicken glazed with Orange and Apple, Singapore curry, Keralan Crab Curry, Thai hot and sour duck, Javanese curry and Nasi Goreng, Pork with parsnips, pears and maple syrup, Duck Vindaloo, Vietnamese curry, Tapas (Egg stuffed with Manchego and Sardine, Flamenco eggs, crab with flaked almonds), Mustard Spiced Indian chicken, Indonesian pork with soy sauce and nasi kunung, Moroccan chicken with lemon and olives, Pearl Barley rissotto with crab, Pork Stroganoff, Romanian Duck Jubilee, Louisiana Jambalaya, Chicken Mole, Poulet al’estragon, Kefta Mkaouara, Vietnamese chicken with sweet potato curry, Thai green curry, Red Thai Curry, Italian chicken stuffed with pear and chestnut, Spaghetti with Salmon and cream, Morroccan chicken with lemon and honey, Lamb tagine with ras el hanout, Vietname duck with nuts and dates.

The Magic Mountain

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was the expression of a society at the zenith of its prosperity and power. Paxton’s Crystal Palace was a huge iron goliath with over a million feet of glass, containing such industrial exhibits as the jacquar loom, courts depicting the history of art and architecture from ancient Egypt through the Renaissance as well as exhibits from imperial territories like India and Austrialia. Major concerts were held in the Palace’s huge arched Centre Transept, which also contained the world’s largest organ. The central transept also housed a circus and was the scene of daring feats by world famous acts such as the tightrope walker Blondin. The Crystal Palace itself was almost outshone by the park in which it stood, which contained a magnificent series of fountains (the water pumped through a set of towers designed by Brunel) and the park’s original trees.

Today, it is a rather different matter. What Mayhew described as the glass hive burned down in the thirties; all that remains are a set of empty terraces, the sort of enigma that would leave archaeologists with endless speculation. Some architecture has within it the potential for decay and ruin; the ruins of the gothic St Dunstan in the East wear their decay as if they had never been anything else, while the baroque ruins of Christchurch Greyfriars are decidedly ill at ease with their decline. The terraces of the Crystal Palace clearly fall into the former category, with headless statues gracing the steps and Sphinxes guarding the entrance way to nothingness. Based on the designs of ruined Egyptian temples, the Sphinxes seem entirely at home with their place amidst overgrown oak trees. Behind the trees, a BBC transmitter now lords it over the empty spaces of the park. A nearby lake provides a home for lillies, a family of coots with their shrill young and a heron.

One part of the exhibition was sufficiently at a distance to be spared destruction; the nearby dinosaur park, an exhibition of prehistoric reptiles and mammals, and examples of geology, spanning 350 million years of Britain’s evolution (all rather reminiscent of Conan Doyle’s lost world). The park was conceived by Richard Owen as part of the same project that led to the founding of the Natural History Museum. Amongst eminent Victorians, Owen was especially striking. Having identified a giant fossil bird from New Zealand (the Moa) from a tiny fragment of fossilized bone alone and inventing the term ‘dinosaur,’ he nonetheless became notorious for opposing the theory of evolution. Famously, he hosted an extravagant party in the belly of a reconstructed Iguanodon at the park. Recently, the park has been restored and is now planted with tree ferns and monkey puzzle trees, along with azaleas and Australian bottlebrush, making it a minor botanical garden. Water birds nest inbetween the paws of the dinosaurs and another heron guards the shore line. Infant swans and coots cluster by the side of the water in the expectation of bread. A cormorant preens itself and stretches its wings in the centre of the lake. The dinosaurs themselves are easily as impressive as the skeletons in the central hall of the Natural History Museum, albeit subject to certain inaccuracies (the placing of the Iguanodon’s thumb spike on its nose, placing of Megalosaurus on four legs or the turning of Dicynodon into a tortoise-like animal); though it should be remembered that such problems persist to this day (e.g. the discovery of feathered dinosaurs in China).

Ruskin was apparently often in the habit of journeying out from his home in Herne Hill to visit Dulwich Picture Gallery in order to reconfirm his prejudices against Baroque art and leave feeling "encouragingly disgusted." It’s difficult not to sympathise with opprobrium against a period characterised by the trivialities of Watteau and Fragonard, Italian propaganda of the Counter-Reformation or the stately but arid paintings of Gainsborough and Kneller. A post-romantic sensibility is inevitably likely to struggle somewhat with this period. Nonetheless, the gallery does contain rather more than Ruskin gave it credit for, especially its collection of Dutch paintings. From a period when Holland had formed a society that was the prototype of everything Europe was to become (liberal democratic, mercantile and tolerant), its paintings were intended for private consumption rather than for ecclesiastical display, opening a space that allowed for a new form of art. Aelbert Cuyp’s pastoral scenes were to be greatly influential on artists like Constable but were also to lead to a more proto-romantic sensibility in artists like Ruisdael (the same applyig De Velde’s maritime paintings, intended to show the trading status of the Dutch nation). Still-life and landscape became more prominent as genres, historical and allegorial paintings, less so. Rembrandt’s paintings denoted a move towards a focus on the individual and the interior life. A particularly Gerrit Dou painting shows a marked move from allegory to realism. The gallery also has a number of striking pictures in other sections; a Canaletto painting of Venice, Claude’s equally proto-romantic Arcadian scenes or Reni’s Caravaggioesque St Sebastian.

Otherwise, what is most of interest about the gallery is its status as a combined art collection and mausoleum (a form of modern Pantheon, like that of Canova, or a return to the style of cemetery originally found on the Via Appia before they were banished to necropolises outside Rome). The paintings in the gallery are effectively a form of grave good, no different to works found in Egyptian or Viking tombs. The gallery was the work of Sir John Soane and reflect an interest in funerary architecture that is also on display with his own tomb in St Pancras Cemetery and reflects his typically pagan style, placing Roman funerary urns on the outside of the mausoluem. Unhindered by practical considerations, funerary building was to prove an ideal area for architects to experiment with novel forms. Although a classicist in style (regarding himself as a latter-day Etruscan tomb-builder and brininging an Egyptian Sarcophagus of Seti into his house at Lincoln’s Inn Fields as well as a monk’s tomb, based on gothic arches from Westminster), Soane’s ideas for a funerary architecture based in gardens and parks (the Elysian necropolis) were to form the basis of the rather more gothic Victorian garden cemeteries. Previously, churchyard burial had been considered as low status in comparison to the monuments found within churches and abbeys, a shift that was encouraged by the Napoleonic wars creating a need for large martial, public monuments.

Of all the Victorian cemeteries, Brookwood comes closest to having reverted to nature. The stretches of its heathes are filled with heathers and ferns interspersed with sequoia and cedar. This wild aspect is particularly odd as it was also the most modern, with the cemetery’s railway bringing in coffins from London. In 1854, Brookwood was the largest cemetery in the world, and is accordingly filled with the customary Victorian angels and funeral urns. But it is also became home to other religions, from Swedish Evangelicals to Muslims. The Zoroastrian section is by far the most impressive though,with stone torches, Persian tiling and ornate tombs that are worthy of Highgate.

I’ve also recently been to Chelsea Physic Garden, which was founded in 1673, as the Apothecaries’ Garden, chosen for its the proximity to the Thames and for a warm microclimate that allowed the survival of many non-native plants – such as the largest outdoor fruiting olive tree in Britain, pomegranates and bananas. The area was already famed for gardens and orchards owned by the likes of Thomas More and was used as a means of growing and studying medicinal plants (though the garden also now has plants like cotton, woad and madder), evolving in time into what we would now recognise as a botanical garden (the cedar of Lebanon was first cultivated in Britain here and its heated glasshouse was the first in Europe). The garden presents its specimins through a number of taxonomies; species (the fernery), geography (North America and Madeira), type (monocotyledons or dycotyledons), usage (Belladona for optics, Valerian for sleep, Digitalis for heart convulsions, Castor Oil Plant for skin conditions as well as curiosities like Mandrake and Mandragora), history (traditional kitchen gardens and exhbitions on the work of Joseph Banks on species like Australian Bottlebrush; Banks also brought back volcanic lava from Iceland for the central fountain) and a garden of world medicine, discussing Maori, Indian and Zulu uses of plants. This last section does have a certain romanticisation of the primitive to it, particularly given that research found that the tribal use of Madagascan periwinkle to treat diabetes was wholly ineffective though the plant did have a marked effect in laying waste to white blood cells. Whereas most gardens rely on sight as the main sense to appreciate them with, flowers are less common here but a thick scent pervades the air as bees, butterflies, and dragonflies flash cut through it. A wollemi pine is on display within one of the greenhouses.

A city like Amsterdam functions as a whole, lacking the grandiose monuments of other cities but rather creating its effect through an accretion of small details. London is quite the reverse, a grey and dirty concrete city, which is nonetheless relieved by the presence of small spots of beauty. One such is St Pancras Cemetery. This was once the churchyard of a village outside London, but urban expansion drew it increasingly within the cemtery. Then came the Midlands railway, arriving by St Pancras Chambers and cut through the graveyard. The then young architect Thomas Hardy was appointed to clear it and instead of stacking the headstones in a corner or cementing them into footpaths, he gathered them round the base of a tree. The Hardy Tree remains as a testament to the dead in the cemetery, as the railway goes through its second expansion. It also retains its mythic aspect, reminding one of that other ash tree, Ygdrasil, with the headstones bearing a grisly resemblance to roots. The cemetery now is more like a park, albeit filled with the more impressive monuments remaining. Foremost amongst these is the Soane Mausoleum, a classical structure that seems to reach back to the times when St Pancras was the site of a pagan compitum rather than a place dedicated to a christian martyr. Elsewhere, the cemetery contains the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft (and it was by this that Shelley first saw Mary Godwin) and the a sundial as a memorial to Angela Burdett-Coutts (in memory of the important people who had been buried near the church, and whose graves had been disturbed by the encroachments of the Midland Railway). The church itself is largely Victorian but does contain a beautiful Blomfield reredo.

From there, I went to the city, to the church of St Giles at Cripplegate (sitting on a moated island within the impenetrable fortress of the Barbican) and to St Botolph’s Bishopgate. The churchyard there is especially noteworthy for containing one of the last Victorian Turkish Baths (though why something most likely to have been used by gay men should have been there rather puzzles me). From thence, I left the city and travelled to Westminster and to the cathedral there. This is perhaps a rather odd area, housing the Anglican Abbey, the Methodist Central Hall as well as the Roman Catholic Cathedral. Modelled on the Haghia Sophia so as not to compete with the Abbey, the Cathedral’s Byzantine design compares oddly to Pugin’s ambition to re-anglicise Catholicism by emphasising its gothic heritage, as with his church at Cheadle (particularly given the way the Cathedral dwells on English saints like Alban, Bede, Edmund, Cuthbert, Winifrid and, rather less convincingly, George, as well as martrys persecuted during and after the reformation, such as Thomas More). Much of the interior is simply blackened brick (still awaiting its mosaics; in this sense it is as incomplete as the Sagrada Familia) but with the lower areas given up to rich marbles and vividly colourful mosaics. Many of these follow Byzantine conventions but one of Boris Antrep depicted them in the style of his native Russia, against pink rather than gold. Work still contines; as I was there a mosaic was laid out on the floor waiting to be put in place in one of the side chapels. Finally, I walked to the Inigo Jones Banqueting House. To some extent this was a disappointment; the exterior had actually been redesigned by Soane whilke the introduction of murals onto the ceiling by Rubens also substantiually changes the building, preventing it from being used for masques.

The half-timbered gateway to the church of St Bartholomew the Great shows the saint wielding the knife with which he is thought to have been flayed (not inappropriately so; the feast day in his name was commemorated by Vlad Dracul impaling thirty thousand Transylvanians). Through the gate, there is an odd sight; the remains of the medieval church, a Victorian tower and heind it the modern Barbican tower. The interior is largely Norman and its blackened stones and dark transepts provide a strange contrast to the gleaming portland stone of the English baroque more commonly associated with London churches (even Southwark Cathedral’s stone is a light honey colour that seems to glow in the light). Only a set of painted monument statues relieve the darkness.

Walking past the Old Bailey and the dark tower of St Sepulchre-Without-Newgate, to Postman’s Park. St Botolph Aldergate, completed in 1791, has a late-Georgian exterior. The church is most noted for its churchyard, Postman’s Park. Filled with tree ferns and a pleasant fountain, this is nonetheless as important a representation of the Victorian interest in death as Highgate or Kensal Green. Established by the Pre-Raphaelite painter GF Watts, one park walls is lined with tiles that serve as monuments to various people that were deemed to have died heroically, typically saving others from either fire or water. As an example of heroes and hero-worship it encapsulates both a Victorian instinct for egalitarianism and for sentimentality. Onwards again, to the ruins of Christchurch Greyfriars. Like St Dunstan in the East, this church was destroyed in the blitz. Where St Dunstan’s gothic ruins are now filled with lush and exotic growths, Christchurch’s more stately baroque remains are now home to rose gardens. Walking back past St Nicholas Abbey with its boat-shaped weathervane, St Dunstans in the West, the Daily Telegraph building and Charing Cross, I arrived at the Coliseum for a performance of Nixon in China by John Adams.

As a musical style, minimalism has tended to conflate Eastern influences with more popular Western styles, like Jazz, so it is an appropriate vehicle for an opera dealing with the rapprochement of West and East. Following the Second World War, the United States had refused to recognise China, instead conferring legitimacy on the exiled government in Taiwan. Nixon’s state visit enabled the US to drive a wedge between Russia and China, and inaugurated a policy of detente that has led to China’s re-emergence as an economic power, to the point where it has become quite easy to envisage it overtaking the US itself. The opera recognises this, depicting Map as seeing the demise of all he had worked for before him and alternately lauding how ‘the pople are the heroes now’ before condemning the collective violence of the Cultural Revolution. Act four in particular, where the Nixons attend The Red Detachment of Women, an opera written by Madame Mao, shows the Nixons responding to the downtrodded heroine but repulsed by the violence used to liberate the proletariat and the ideological conformity behind it. The Nixon’s poor background is stressed against Madame Mao’s elitism, while the opera repestedly seeks to both counterpoint and undermine right/left distinctions (Nixon and Mao agree that it is only the right that can act). Since both Nixon and Mao were adept manipulators of public opinion the opera seeks to portray the private persona, frequently embodied in Pat Nixon and Chiang Ch’ing.

Thomas Mann journeyed from bourgeois conservative to liberalism and his novels trace a not dissimilar path from from the social realism of Buddenbrooks to the symbolism of The Magic Mountain. Like Joyce in Ulysses, Mann has the real world of a sanatorium in the Alps shadowed by the mythic, with his protagonist entering the underworld in the same manner as Orpheus, Dante, Aeneas and Odysseus. Nonetheless, the novel often slips between realism and symbolism (most obviously with the depiction of a seance where Hans meets his dead cousin Joachim, meeting the dead literally rather than figuratively). The sanatorium represents something akin to Wagner’s Venusberg or Spenser’s Bower of Bliss, with the death instinct displacing love. However, the symbolism is uncertain; firstly symbols like the lindenbaum form an unclear objective correlative (not unlike Kafka in this respect, the tree of life is a symbol of death, resurrection, life the transcending of time into an epiphany). The mountain itself is revealed as a Freudian symbol by Dr Krokowski; "whoever recognises a symptom of organic disease as an effect of the conscious soul-life of forbidden and hystericised emotions recognises the creative force of the psychical within the material – a force which one is inclined to claim as a second source of magic phenomena." Krokowski sees disease as a physical manifestation of the psychic, forming the magic as much as references to Nietzsche’s Zauberberg. Ilness, in Sontagian terms is clearly a metaphor but although she saw the novel as storehouse of the early-twentieth century metaphorical thinking, the nature of that metaphor remains elusive (tubercolisis clearly represents more than romantic wasting) but the wider implications In Memories, Dreams and Reflections , Jung saw mountains as symbolic of life, writing that "this is it, my world, the real world, the secret, where there are no teachers, no schools, no unanswerable questions, where one can be without having to ask anything." The inversion of the mountain and the underworld, life and death suggests how unstable symbols within the novel can be. Although the novel is essentially a bildungsroman, the development of Hans Castorp essentially takes place bu touching the ineffable through dreams and music.

The uncertainty of the symbolism also applies to the role of the characters in a manner that is profoundly dialogic, characteristic of the novel’s polyphony. For example, some of the Berghof’s denizens, such as Joachim, do not conform to the pattern of the symbolism and instead follow the course one would expect in a realist novel; Joachim feels trapped and imprisoned, not seduced by the Berghof, with his death being due to his escape from it. The oppositions between the differing characters can be read as being both Apollonian and Dionysian, German Culture and French Civilisation. Mann had previously emphatically endorsed Culture and the Apollonian only to later recant, but nonetheless Joachim’s military honour and steadfast obedience remain the virtues of the Germany that Mann had turned his back on ("War is necessary. Without war the world would soon go to rot"). Similar difficulties pertain to the others; Settembrini is identified with reason and humanism, the form of positivism ridiculed by Nietzsche and exposed by Naptha as being both transcendental and aristocratic. In the other instance, Naptha is identified with nihilism and romanticism, accordingly somewhat closer to Mann’s thought but nonetheless identified with the death instinct. Castorp’s dreams suggest both are a destructive force whose positions frequently cease to be stable opposites and converge. Their duel proves the point but the via media of the earthy and sensual advocate of the Dionysian and Eastern gay science condemned by Settembrini and Naptha alike, Peeperkorn proves an equally dead-end with his suicide. Since the novel repeatedly imbricates life, love and death as concepts, each philosophy (with philosophy after all being concerned with being rather than its converse) within the novel fails to offer a coherent and convincing account that could divert it from its thanatophilia.

Mann’s Doctor Faustus raises similar issues to Bernhard’s Correction in its depiction of a genius throught the mediating narration of an observer; "the highly subjectivising contrast I feel between the nature of the artist and the ordinary man…. Adrian reacted witheringly to such romantic tripe" or "all the ideas and points of view made vocal around him were present in himself." Zeitblom implicitly draws anaologies between Adrian’s descent into the irrational and that of Nazi Germany (where mythical fiction must replace debate and consensus) but the parallel is never clear, with Zeitblom also defending Adrian’s liturgical music against the charge of barbarism. Adrian grows to look increasingly christlike, spiritualised through suffering; "with it is an inversion of the temptation idea; in such a way that Faust rejects as temptation the thought of being saved." The scene with the devil raises the question of how literally to take the idea of damnation or whether to see it as a metaphor for artistic creation or for the author’s homosexuality and Adrian’s love for Rudi; "barbarism even has more grasp of theology than has a culture fallen away from cult, which even in religious has seen only culture, only the humane, never excexx, paradox, the mystic passion."

Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul is both a bildungsroman and an account of the history and architecture of his native city. Where a Western writer would typically have sought to interrelate these two themes, Pamuk alternates between them, reflecting his own preoccupation with the idea of the divided self. Pamuk writes of his childhood imagining of another Orhan living in the same city, of seeing his myriad other selves reflected in the mirror, of his father’s other life in another flat and of his dual perception of his city as its inhabitatant and under his own westernised eyes so that he comes to see it as a foreigner. The New Life depicts the idea of the transcendent as something disruptive and traumatic that causes people to fall away from their path in life and to encounter death. Pamuk writes that the novel is an unfamilar form, that rather being like Chekhov, writing of the pain and dignity of being alive "instead, like a writer from the East let me take the opportunity to tell a cautionary tale. In short, I had desired to set myself apart from others." Reality is dispersed and fractured, with characters taking on new identities from the dead and establishing new ones as doubles of the deceased; "I used to be someone else once and that someone used to desire to become me." As such, the novel casts its attempts to discern patterns and symbols (few of the characters use anything other than pseudonyms while the line between accident and design is continually unclear) into a cohesive whole through a series of characters, like Doctor Fine’s attempts to preserve collective memory in certain objects (" if that were true flea markets would be bathed in spiritual enlightenment" ) like watches. Like the angel, Fine deplores the printing press against the written word but sees the cult as both un-Turkish and un-Islamic and therefore Western. The novel constantly aspires to allegory but is always frustrated.

In the style of Lucretius, Ovid’s Metamorphoses concludes with a speech given by Pythagoras; "our souls are immortal and are ever received into new homes… everything is in a state of flux and comes into being as a transient appearance. " The Pythagoreans were known for their theory of Metempsychosis, the transference of souls between man and animal and between man and woman, just as Ovid depicts characters being transmogrified between species and gender. Distinguishing between the material and immaterial, many of Ovid’s characters, like Aeneas, Caesar and Heracles, have their mortality burnt away, leaving their divinity. The poet himself concludes by saying that his poetry will perform a similar service for himself; "with my better part, I shall soar, undying." It’s easy to see why Ovid was often read as a christian allegorist (or even Pound’s "Say that I consider the writings of Confucius and Ovid’s Metamorphoses the only safe guides in religion"). This dialectic between the material and immaterial is nonetheless rather problematic for Ovid, leaving the relation between the two rather uncertain; in some cases the deaths that lead to change are those of maligned innocents, in others they are punishments for crimes. The story of Arachne summarises this ambiguity, with Athena weaving a pattern of mortals guilty of hubris and Arachne depicting mortals wronged by the gods.

Daniel Defoe’s A tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain is effectively the product of homo economicus; "we saw no idle hands here, but every man busie on the main affair of life, that is to say, getting money." The tour details the trade, commerce and condition of each part of the country (or in the case of Scotland, discussing its lack of trade, industry and discipline), often pausing to look at other matters but largely refusing to "meddle with the antique." Nonetheless, Defoe devotes much of his description of London in particular to lamenting the uncontrolled sprawl of the city, predicting economic collapse (occasionally citing the South Sea Bubble), decrying the mediocrity of the city’s church architecture and calling for Whitehall Palace to be rebuilt in such a form as to rival Versailles.

With the return of the Proms, I once more found myself walking across Kensington Gardens to the Royal Albert Hall for the third part of the Ring cycle, Siegfried. In some senses, this continues the anti-capitalist romanticisation of the feudal past that underpins much of the ring; the love of gold destroys Mime while Siegfried is the authentic noble savage, untainted by society. Conversely, there is also something alarmingly feral about his status as ubermensch warrior, with his slaying of Fafnir being precipitate at best. This throws an interesting light upon the ‘sleeping beauty’ sequence with Brunnhilde, where he is emasculated by his sense of fear in her presence and she is feminised by the destruction of her armour; both experience love as weakness rather than as a civilisation of their wildness.

Jarrold and Dore’s London: A Pilgrimage is structured much in the manner of a Dickens or Thackeray novel covering both the highs and lows of London society. Jarrold is quite striking when he describes life in nineteenth century London as a constant struggle for survival with each and every man fixed on commerce as his sole aim. Nonetheless, even after describing the rookeries around Westminster, his account lovingly lingers on society dinners and events before concluding with an somewhat inapposite peroration on the excellence of British charity and philanthrophy.

By the Thames

Anthony Giddens sees modernity as a condition whereby pre-modern (traditional) culture have given way to modern (post-traditional) culture; identity becomes more reflexive and self-consciously constructed. Roles are negotiated rather than assigned by convention. Anthony Trollope is consciously writing in The Way We Live Now as an opponent of modernity, counterpointing the morals and dignity of an increasingly impecunious aristocracy with the corruption of the self-made men of the rising mercantile classes; "his position is a sign of the degeneracy of the age". However, the novel also questions conventional ideas of identity; the stereotypically Jewish aspects of the portrayal of Melmotte’s venality is balanced by the portrayal of Mr Breghert as he is wronged by members of the upper classes unwilling to accept that times have changed for social acceptance of Jews. Similarly, Marie Melmotte proceeds from being a hapless victim to revenging herself on her father and taking on property. Equally, the fact that Melmotte is brought down the avarice of the aristocracy and the dissipation of figures like Sir Felix, serves to deconstructs the opposition at the heart of the novel between old fashioned order and middle class rapacity. The novel acknowledges some of this in its discussions of how Melmotte himself is viewed; "as the great man was praised so too was he abused… the working classes were in favour of Melmotte… from their belief he was being ill-used.. that occult sympathy for crime, when the crime committed is injurious to the upper classes… it came to be said of him that he was more sinned against than sinning."

Similar concerns appear throughout Zola’s The Kill, where Haussman’s rebuilding of Paris serves throughout as a metaphor for the disorientation and the Durkheimite anomie of modernity. As such, Paris is seen as artificial and inauthentic, no longer the organic product of social evolution; "a strange feeling of illicit desire at the sight of this landscape that had become unrecognisable, so worldly and artificial." The preoccupation with the artificial and contrived point clearly to Zola’s affiliation with Huysmans. As traditional roles fall into desuetude, so too do traditional ethics of abstinence; "the main preoccupation of society was with knowing how to enjoy itself." Sin becomes a form of consumption, of refinement. Similarly, sexual roles also become fluid once they are no longer constrained by traditional norms; "the sign of his boyish debauchery, this effeminisation of his whole being… he seemed born and bred for perverted sensual pleasure. Renee enjoyed her domination." Renee assumes the masculine role, Maxime the feminine. The paradox in many Zola novels is that while the central fable of his novels is concerning with condemning the immorality of modern, post-traditional society, the syuzhet draws much of its sensational interest from depicting them. As such, The Kill is loosely based on a moral fable, with Renee being betrayed by Saccard and Maxime. However, Saccard’s indifference to her adultery goes a long way towards aborting that moral framework, with the cash nexus replacing normal social relations.

Hans Christian Anderson’s stories depict a world where, as a character in The Ice Maiden puts it, "antiquated ways are discarded" so that mermaids and telegraph wires co-exist (memorably, the eyes of the ice maiden are described as being like the barrels of a shotgun) and the conventions of folk tales (of the kind described by Vladimir Propp) become contested and dispersed. A tale like The Tinderbox recognisably belongs to the same world as that of the Brothers Grimm; a hero is offered the chance of fame and fortune and is ruthless in his will to power, in contrast to the moral fable of Big Claus and Little Claus or The Ugly Duckling. However, in later stories this is sublimated, either into a thanatophilic concept of virtue being rewarded in the afterlife (as in The Little Mermaid, The Marsh King’s Daughter or The Story of a Mother) or where aspiration and virtue alike are thwarted (as in The Shadow). Contingent upon this is a world that is far less centered around the protagonists, where everything from animals to inanimate objects have become anthropomorphised, as cats and storks become participants and commenters within the narrative. The fate of creatures like The Snowman or The Fir Tree is more suggestive of Kafka’s Metamorphosis than the Brothers Grimm. Equally, if the stories frequently see female sexuality as threatening (particularly with the Ice Maiden or Snow Queen) then they also displace the role of the hero in favour of female characters, like Gerda in The Snow Queen or The Marsh King’s Daughter.

Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor is one of the most interesting dystopian novels I can think of. Whereas the majority of apocalyptic science fiction, from Wyndham to Atwood, revolves around the causal factors (technological, ecological, political, economic etc) for whatever has changed society from its familiar state, Lessing elides this; "for ‘it’ is a force, a power… ‘it’ can be, has been, pestilence, war, the alteration of climate, tyranny." The novel is deliberately dislocated from any specific sense of time or place and instead concentrates on the consequences of social breakdown from feral packs of children to tribal migration. Nonetheless, Lessing undermines the dystopian aspects of the novel in a number of ways. Firstly, dystopian fiction, whether 1984, Day of the Triffids or The Handmaids Tale tends to emphasise individual agency in the face of events. By contrast, Lessing repeatedly stresses that governments are powerless in the face of change while her characters take no actions to change matters. Offered the choice of moving to safer areas in the countryside, they do nothing. Submission is the order of the day (Lessing’s interest in Sufism comes through strongly in how she handles time, viewing all phenomena as manifestations of a single reality, or Wujud i.e. being). She also expresses little sorrow for the loss of ‘the age of affluence,’ implying that the experiments in communalism that emerge represent an improvement on the society that had marginalised people like June Ryan; "all property worries gone; all sexual taboos gone… free, at least from what was left of ‘civilisation’ and its burdens." By repeatedly ‘cutting’ to descriptions of Emily’s childhood, Lessing also appears to characterise the family in Laingian terms as a source of neurosis whose loss is not necessarily to be mourned.

From Zola’s view of the novel as a scientific experiment to Wolfe’s ‘new journalism,’ the novel has attempted to purge itself of all assocations with artifice and imagination, preferring instead to present itself as something objective and factual. If inherent in the idea of realism, it nonetheless represents a problematic conception, if only because if the act of observing something can change a subject, how much more can the act of narrating change it. The most notable example of which being Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a ‘non-fiction novel’ relating the murder of four people on a Kansas farm in 1959. Bearing this in mind, the idea of creating a film depicting the writing of the book is an oddly postmodern one (a representation of a representation), particularly since the sparse and austere cinematography appears to be trying to emulate the novel’s journalistic style.

Wimpole Hall, designed by Sir John Soane and James Gibbs, appears at first a model of neo-classical symmetry and proportion. However, the interior easily belies this, as corridors snake in on themselves leading to dead-ends. His main contribution is a drawing room with a large domed ceiling, not unlike some of his works at Lincoln’s Inn. The main contribution from Gibbs was a Wedgewoodesque book room. The highlight of the interior was a small collection of Gillray prints, mostly lambasting the Prince Regent and the Broad Bottomed Ministry (as well as some more unusual ones with hunting as their target). I was also struck by a Grandfather clock, where a ship rocked on the waves in time with the ticks and tocks.

An interior chapel is painted with a trompe l’oeil effect (something of a theme; there’s also a painted playing table, complete with painted cards). The grounds are home to a small church (with a large wing filled with marble monuments of the house owners) and a set of gothic ruins in the distance. The gardens have been restored to their original formal patterns (reversing Capability Brown’s vandalism), though landscaped pleasure grounds filled with a wide range of trees and shrubs remain (including the national collection of walnuts). The sky was a brilliant shade of turquoise inbetween dark rain clouds, while the flatness of the Cambridgeshire landscape reminded me strongly of a Trent Valley that had never been industrialised.

Perched high above the Thames, Cliveden feels as if it should be a gothic castle. Instead, the Italianate building and formal gardens look as if they should be nestled within the gentle slopes of a valley. I’d forgotten the sheer amount of Roman and Italian sculpture in the grounds, such as the Borghese balustrade with its dragons and eagles as well as more modern conceits like the turtles on one of the fountains. The Wisteria was flowering alongside the Acer in the Chinese water garden (it felt as if cherry blossom should have been correct for the pagoda, but the Wisteria made a more than acceptable substitute). Ducklings splashed about in the waters around the Botticelli fountain. Further along the Thames and one comes to Windsor. The castle here towers well above the Thames (the site was chosen by William the Conqueror on defensive grounds) though the presence of the town nestling beneath it softens the scene somewhat. I find a meadow by the river, go paddling in the water and watch the swans glide by. Rather inevitably, the town itself has a rather kitsch feel to it, largely due to the continuous citing of often rather trivial historical associations; HG Wells working as a draper or Nell Gwyn and Shakespeare staying in local taverns. You do have to go back quite a long way before anything actually happened at Windsor. Even much of the castle has a rather Ruritanian feel to it, presumably due to the changes made by George the Fourth. The castle has been redesigned and redesigned so often that its medieval appearance is illusory and hyperreal. The town does at least have a more concrete feel to it, with a Guildhall designed by Wren and the nearby church St John the Baptist, home to an anonymous Renaissance painting of the last supper and beautiful altar mosaics and corbels, designed by the same artist that worked on Westminster Abbey.

Further down the Thames again and one comes to Richmond. When the likes of Hampton Court and Ham House were built here, courtiers would sail to the city on barges establishing its role as a rural suburb early on. Ham House was originally designed in the Jacobean period and much like its rival at Hampton was extended during the restoration. The house reached its apotheosis at this point, described by Evelyn as comparable to the finest villas in Italy and furnished like a palace. Nonetheless, its owner fell from favour at court, penury beckoned and the house was left to stagnate for centuries. Visiting in 1770, Walpole described it as dreary, ancient and decayed, a place barricaded away from the rest of the world and liable to defeat even his passion for the antique. Today, the house seems rather less formidable, in spite of the busts of Roman Emperors filling niche after niche in the redbrick walls at the front of the house. Nonetheless, the house looks out from a long avenue towards the Thames, as parakeets fly overhead. The restored gardens provide a glimpse of what Evelyn meant, with a wilderness area populated by statues of Hermes, hornbeam hedges and secluded gardens, formal gardens planted with lavender and box and overlooked by Bacchus and kitchen gardens (there is also a still chamber for the preparation of perfumes, conserves and cordials). One room contained detailed plans for rebuilding Inigo Jones’ Westminster Palace, the subject of much speculation in Defoe’s Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain and a good example of the many unfulfilled projects of what London could have been.

Like Hampton, the planting of myrtle, lemon, oleander and almond trees is of the period (tulips and pineapples are incorprated into statues and gates throughout the gardens). Conversely, the interior tends to illustrate the decayed grandeur of the place. A great hall hung with paintings by Lely and Kneller leads to a grand staircase, with an elaborate wooden balustrade. The North Drawing Room above is hung with Flemish tapestries (still retaining much of their original colour; a later room has Spitalfields tapestries copying Watteau designs), white marble chimneypieces and ionic columns and ivory cabinets. This leads to a long gallery, where dark black wood is gilded with gold, and Van Dyck paintings of the Royal family line the walls. A strange self-portrait hangs above the door, showing him with a sunflower, symbolic of art and nature, sovereign and subject. Marquetry and Japanned furniture, often with blue and white Kangxi porcelain line the walls. A closet leads to a collection of miniatures of subjects like Elizabeth, Lucretia’s suicide and a love in flames (he who does not burn will die). Finally, an elaborate four-poster bed forms the centrepiece of the Queen’s bedchamber, decorated with Van De Velde paintings.

Lacock in Wiltshire was once the home of an abbey that offered a home to the unmarried daughters of wealthy families, and to a village that grew wealthy through the wool trade. The Abbey was dissolved in the reformation while the nineteenth century cotton imports had a similar effect on the village. The combination of these factors with the relative isolation of Lacock led to them becoming a form of time capsule. The village remains full of half-timbered buildings, while the church of St Cyriac still houses a Lady Chapel where paint remains on the ceiling alongside especially elaborate gargoyle carvings. The church has a window above the chancel arch, indicative of the customary ‘wool gothic’ style of Cotswolds churches. The walls are still whitewashed, presumably indicative of no Victorian changes. The exterior of the church is equally elaborate, while the size of the tombs testifies to the wealth of the community. The abbey has rather less of a sense of continuity with that period, save for its cloisters. After the reformation, it was converted into a country house and an octagonal tower added to the side. The interior is dominated by a circular table, supported by three satyrs, while much of the house is dominated by images of the scorpion from that owner’s crest. Later owners provided good examples of early gothic revival. The great hall comes with a barreled ceiling studded with crests, a rose window and wall niches filled with extraordinary terracotta figures representing death and the scapegoat. Later owners experimented with camera inventions and translation of cuneiform and populated the house with the likes of geological specimens and stuffed pangolins. The grounds are more classical, ranging from a stone sphinx to a botanical garden.

Nearby lies Great Chalfield house, a fifteenth century manor house complete with a moat. The church of All saints lies within the moat and includes a beautiful painted pre-raphaelite organ and wooden rood screens. Swallows nesting in the rafters looked down curiously on the visitors. The grounds bear witness of plants overspilling the paths and forcing their way through the cracks between the lichen covered paving stones (looking rather like Mariana’s moated grange), a welcome correction to the meticulous restoration of the house itself. The great hall on the interior is much as one would expect, save for mask-like faces looking down from the galleries with empty eye-sockets (designed for the lord to spy on servants). Red paint remains on the rafters of the hall, while perhaps the most impressive aspect of the rest of the house are the oriel windows.

Having been to Highgate Cemetery earlier this year, I returned to London today for more of the Victorian way of death. The ‘mighty seven’ cemeteries represent a form of ritual, as much as photographs, death masks and portraits of the recently deceased produced by the Victorians, as well as jewellery that utilized a locket of the dead person’s hair, extravagant funerals and the wearing of black crepe. After a stroll round the Kyoto gardens in Holland Park, were I watched the peacocks lazily strut about and a wagtail flit from one stone pagoda to another, I began at Brompton Cemetery. More like a landscaped garden than Highgate, ferns have nonetheless grown thickly across much of the grounds while squirrels scamper across the tombstones. The layout is also more formal than Highgate (based on the structure of a cathedral), with a central avenue leading to a chapel modelled on St Peter’s Basilica, which is flanked by long colonnades. The tombs are also more impressive than the majority of those in Highgate, with Neo-classical, Gothic and Egyptian mausoleums lining the central avenue. The most impressive tomb is that of James McDonald (Chairman of Anglo-American Oil), a gothic affair complete with Pre-Raphaelite angels and stained glass windows. Conversely, the names of the dead are rather less noteworthy than either Highgate or Kensal Green; Emmeline Pankhurst being the most well known. The cemetery is also a rather blatantly obvious cruising ground; albeit by coincidence rather than by design, there’s something rather reassuring (and oddly apposite) about desire persisting in the midst of death.

I then travelled north to visit Kensal Green, the first of the Victorian ‘mighty seven’ cemeteries to be constructed and perhaps the most impressive. While the trees were still leafless when I went to Highgate, Kensal had a perversely bucolic aspect in the sunshine with buttercups and daisies flowering while a Green Woodpecker perched on top of one of the graves. Kensal Green would certainly have been rural when it was built, but today the cemetery is dominated by the rusting skeletons of two gasometers and the louring presence of Erno Goldfinger’s brutalist Trellick Tower. Kensal is by no means as formally laid out as Brompton, though it does have a set of Greek Revival Chapels (complete with catacombs and hydraulic catafalque) and a central avenue. The tombs along this are especially striking. On one side is the tomb of William Casement (four male statues supporting a stone canopy, in the manner of the Erechtheum), Andrew Ducrow (an Egyptian tomb decorated with scarabs and guarded by two sphinxes), Edmund Molyneux (Italian Gothic in red Peterhead granite) and Henry Edward Kendall (a Gothic cross decorated with Minton tiling). On the other side is Mary Gibson (a Corinthian canopy surmounted by four Pre-Raphaelite angels reaching towards the sky), and the quack doctor John St John Lang (a classical statue standing within a circular canopy) who died of the affliction his medicine purported to cure and William Mulready (a gothic statue lying in state in a classical canopy).

Kensal also has the advantage of the reputations of those interred there, from many writers and artists (Thackerary, Hood, Collins, Trollope, Waterhouse and Grossmith), engineers and scientists (Brunel and Babbage), disgraced royals and fascinating figures like Dr James Barry (a successful army doctor and duellist who was only unmasked as a woman after her death) and the Duke of Portland (an eccentric recluse who had built underground ballrooms and mazes under his estate, and was claimed to have faked his death as part of the Druce affair).

Beginning with Shadwell and Hawksmoor’s church of St George in the East before travelling to Limehouse and St Anne’s church. I’m always stuck by Hawksmoor’s buildings; they make few concessions to architectural tradition and often feel as if they should be stage scenery; viewed from the front they are striking and impressive while viewed from the side they seem two-dimensional. St Anne’s also happens to have an unexplained pyramid in its graveyard (drawings in the British Library suggest Hawksmoor may have planned pyramids on the turrets, while Christ Church in Spitalfields does rather resemble a pyramid from the front), possibly a Masonic reference. Walking around these areas, it was difficult not to be struck by how they are changing. High property prices elsewhere in London seem to be driving new property development, with cranes and tall blocks of luxury flats leaping up all around. This gentrification sits alongside the still all too visible poverty of East London and makes for an uncomfortable contrast. Walking back to the Limehouse station, I passed an old public library with a statue of Clement Atlee (Limehouse was his constituency). The architect of the welfare state was decaying badly and was missing his hand; a fitting comment on what was happening around him.

Travelling back into the centre of London took me to another Hawksmoor church, St Mary Woolnoth, a bizarre structure that barely looks like a church at all, lacking as it does a tower or a spire. I then walked around some of the other buildings in the area, like Wren’s gothic church of St Mary Aldermary and his more baroque St Stephen Walbrook, before changing location again to the other side of the Thames and Lambeth. The gates of Lambeth Palace adjoin onto the former church of St Mary-at-Lambeth, now home to the Museum of Garden History. The sight of a Victorian graveyard, filled with the typically ornate Victorian funerary monuments and planted with sisal, poppies, roses, foxgloves and acanthus, was an odd indeed.

Passing by, I returned to north of the Thames, returning back to the city and The Museum of London. The first exhibition here was dedicated to Pre-Roman settlements in what was to become London. I was struck by the note that since the Thames is notoriously prone to flooding, entire sections of land could suddenly be left underwater. An excerpt from Pepys’ diary captures this well; "digging his late Docke, he did 12-foot under ground find perfect trees over-Covered with earth, nut-trees, with the branches and the very nuts upon them, some of whose nuts he showed us, their shells black with age and their Kernell, upon opening decayed; but their shell perfectly hard as ever. And an Ewe-tree he showed us (upon which he says the very Ivy was taken up whole about it), which upon cutting with an adze, we found to be rather harder than the living tree usually is." Manmade objects seem to have survived well too, with the Walbrook having developed as a religious site, with votive offerings thrown into it to appease the gods (I was struck by a panel paralleling this to Bedivere throwing Excalbir back into the lake); a practice that seems to have continued well into the Roman period. This section showed a number of such offerings, typically carved from evergreen woods.

The Roman section was mainly noteworthy for displaying the statues from the Mithraeum found near St Paul’s. As one would expect, several depictions of Mithras and the demon dull abound, along with statues of Minerva and Egyptian deities (apparently the Eastern cults proved more popular in this part of the Empire than the Roman ones). This also included the recently discovered sarcophagus from Spitalfields, decorated with shells throughout. The rest of the exhibition seemed somewhat lacklustre, though I was rather taken by a Victorian automaton called ‘Psycho,’ who was able to play cards and perform mathematical calculations. Due to the removal of internal workings (or hidden actors, depending on the extent of one’s cynicism) the explanation for these feats has been lost.

A Dreaded Sunny Day

Death held an especial place in the Victorian psyche. The combination of sentimental literature, with its stressing of the more pathetic (in the sense of pathos) emotions and the evangelical revival ensured that death acquired a prominence in Victorian life that it did not before and has not since. Notoriously, Victorian literature loved to dwell on death of the pure and helpless, from Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop to Helen Burns in Jane Eyre. The horror genre, typified by Stoker and Poe The elegy grew to particular prominence with Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Arnold’s Thrysis, while such works as Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel aestheticised death as a state of romantic longing (Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor, noted the particular place tuberculosis held for the Victorian mind; it was a wasting disease founded on passion, a consumption of the life force). Spiritualism became increasingly popular, with Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger proceeding from exploring a lost world of dinosaurs in one story to exploring the other world in a later narrative; not for nothing is it said that the Victorians treated death as simply another territory to be conquered.

More empirically, as the population of nineteenth century London increased and social conditions deteriorated the demands on London’s cemeteries rapidly exceeded the available space; the solution was to build seven new cemeteries at a remove from the city, of which Highgate cemetery remains the most famed. Covering a considerable expanse, Highgate’s necropolis represents as formidable an example of Victorian engineering and architecture as the museums in Kensington or the Houses of Parliament. Funerals had come to cost far more than weddings and accrued a wealth of ritual behind them; both the ceremony and the tomb had to be as grandiose as possible. Accordingly, the tombs cover a bewildering range of styles, from obelisks and pyramids to mourning angels (often with a trumpet to herald the day of the resurrection), to funerary urns half covered with veils (pointing to Roman burials practices; rather oddly as cremation was typically considered pagan and unconscionable), broken pillars (symbolising a life cut short) as well as the vogue for Celtic crosses. Where a modern cemetery is orderly and utilitarian, Highgate is filled with the mythology of the underworld. Walking round it feels like walking round ancient ruins, although this is nonetheless a cemetery of the bourgeois and the excluded (from Marx, Elizabeth Siddall and Christian Rossetti to Radclyffe Hall); those barred from being interred in Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s.

However, many of the monuments in the West Cemetery are still more ornate, most obviously with the vaults held in an Egyptian avenue of lotus columns. Beyond that lies the circle of Lebanon, a rotunda where the vaults ranged from Egyptian to Gothic and Neo-Classical and which has a three hundred year old Lebanon cedar at its heart. The novelist Radclyffe Hall lies here buried with her lover, next to a Columbarium vault that holds later ashes from the first cremations. Nearby there is set of terraces where Victorian gentry could take walks and be seen in what was one of the most fashionable parts of London; this is one of the highest points in London and it originally had a phenomenal view across the city. However, this ended when newspaper magnate and German Jew Julius Beer chose to build his mausoleum so as to block the view in revenge for decades of social ostracism. The tomb, based on that of King Mausolus at Halicarnassus, remains quite spectacular and a peek through the glass windows in the door shows ornate statuary and a ceiling decorated with gold ceramics. A more frivolous tomb was that of a menagerist, where a particular domesticated lion rests forever on top of his grave.

Although the cemetery was originally planted with formal gardens, it is today characterised by the sight of magnificent monument crumbling and reverting back to nature, reverting away from the landscaped tradition towards something more like Prague’s Jewish Cemetery or Stockholm’s Woodland Cemetery. Much of the vegetation in the ceremony is evergreen and even at this time of the year it has the aspect of a dark jungle, with rhizomic tangles of ivy vines throttled many of the tombs, their stone angels ensnared by the leaves. Drifts of snowdrops were just beginning to come into flower. The site is rich in wildlife, with squirrels running inbetween the ferns and ash trees. Other species include dogwood beech, limes, oak, hornbeam and hazel.

By contrast, the East section of Highgate is considerably more understated. There are very few ornate monuments here, just rows of tombstones that have begun to fade as the trees take back this land as well. Although bitterly cold, it was nonetheless a bright and sunny day with a blue sky contrasting against the bleached trunks of the leafless trees here. There is one impressive monument here; Karl Marx’s grave was originally quite nondescript but was eventually replaced with something more ostentatious, surmounted by a bust of the philosopher and surrounded by the graves of communist figures from South Africa and Iraq (and, more incongruously, by the grave of Herbert Spencer). Someone had laid flowers at the base of Marx’s grave. George Eliot, England’s greatest novelist, languishes nearby in obscurity while Dickens (an adulterer, after all) rests in Westminster Abbey and Poet’s Corner. Today, I noted that the East cemetery seems especially popular with the Chinese community, with raw slate boulders engraved with Chinese characters being a common feature.

After Highgate, I went to a few other places in London, starting with the New St Pancras Church, which has an octagonal spire modelled on the Temple of the Winds in Athens and an equally Grecian set of four caryatids on the exterior. I then went to the Church of Holy Trinity in Sloane Square, described as the ‘Arts and Crafts Cathedral.’ Redbrick on the exterior, its stained glass windows were the largest items the William Morris company ever produced, while a Tractarian influenced was evident on the ornate beaten brass work throughout the church. As appears compulsory for Anglican churches at present, it had two Russian orthodox icons showing the crucifixion. Finally, I returned to the Leighton House museum, the residence of the pre-raphaelite painter. A redbrick building near Holland Park, the only sign of anything unusual inside is a small dome surmounted by a crescent; in fact an Arab Hall built using Iznik tiles. I hadn’t noticed the rather inappropriate stained glass beneath the dome; brightly coloured and looking life Tiffany works. Other things I hadn’t noticed before were the classical friezes around the top of Leighton’s studio or the Chinese pottery inset into the black surround of a fireplace (I also hadn’t realised that there’s a tower on a nearby street built by gothic revival architect William Burges). The actual collection in the house is rather slight (Leighton owned a great many works, of which only one Tintoretto has ever been returned), but it does include many of his own paintings. I’d heard it said that his painting of Clytemnestra resembles a man more than a woman before but I also noticed that many of his paintings show androgynous figures and that he did paint male nudes. Since of all the Pre-Raphaelites his work comes closest to pornography (as anyone who has seen his painting of The Tepidarium can attest), Leighton’s sexuality seems something of a puzzle; many of his figures are markedly androgynous he never married and did keep company with gay artists like Simeon Solomon.

Reading Balzac’s Lost Illusions I was struck by how it forms a mid-point between the picaresque novel (since although Balzac’s narrative is highly plotted, the plot nonetheless tends to turn through unexpected events in an episodic fashion, a moral fable depicting the travels of a young man from country to city and consequently from innocence to corruption and redemption) and later social novels (where morality has a much more problematic relationship with social conditions and where the character of society is not necessarily regarded as a given, though Balzac is markedly more nonchalant on that score than Zola). For instance, Balzac writes of Lucien that "he was under the spell of luxury and the tyranny of sumptuous fare; his wayward instincts were reviving," but in practice the majority of the narrative is driven not by Lucien’s fall into immoral debauchery but by the machinations of society driven by the cash-nexus; "everything is taxed, everything is sold, everything is manufactured, even success." Accordingly, Balzac links dissipation with the society that produces it; "the helotism to which the Restoration had condemned young people… having no outlet for their energy they… frittered it away in the strangest excesses." The consequence is that although ‘Herrera’ is clearly marked as a Faustian figure, both author and narrator are left pinioned by the novel’s own logic when he declares that any morality can only come after financial security. A statement worthy of Brecht’s What keeps mankind alive?