The Return of History

IMG_2535My third and final blog from Port Eliot looks at two very different ways in which the past is important and why it matters. Both books – one fiction and one non-fiction – also suggest ways in which history is significant for the present day.

One was a talk by Paul Kingsnorth whose book, The Wake, was published by Unbound using crowd funding, and it has become the first book of that kind to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Kingsnorth is a compelling speaker and began by talking about how we tend to forget the myths of the founding of Britain, and indeed that British roots are easily forgotten or ignored. He discussed how myths and stories developed to help the population understand and explain what happened in turbulent times when England was invaded, poor and often struggling with the influx of conquerors with new languages and ideas. The point in history he takes as a beginning for his work was 1066, a time we assume we know about, but Kingsnorth’s point is that there is so much we ignore, or don’t think about. He emphasised that the first law that William (the Conqueror) passed took all landwake cover_illustration into the possession of the crown; and that all English barons in power were replaced with Normans over the following decade or two. Insurgency is little discussed now, but, as the elite of England had mostly been killed in the battles or by William’s orders, opposition had to come from other sources, notably the Sylvatica, or wild men, such as Hereward the Wake. The Harrying of the North, in which resistance to Norman rule was put down ruthlessly, with villages and farmland burned and population slaughtered, is perhaps a sadly familiar tale, but with that history often seems to stop. This is the start for The Wake: how did ordinary people live through these violent times, coming to terms with a loss of identity as well as land and family? The main character, Buccmaster, is a Fens farmer, rooted in ‘the old ways’ and fearful for the future. As Kingsnorth asks, ‘Does an oak tree bend or break when hit by lightning?’ What does this period of history do to identity, and to England?

Of course such big questions have big, often ambiguous answers, but they also have resonance for the modern world, not just here in Britain but much more widely. The novel provokes questions about how the future will judge us; and also about what national identity is, and why it is (or isn’t) important. What role does history play in this? It’s a story both specific and universal, then, of a colonised and paul_kingsnorthoppressed people with many modern and historic parallels.

I’m also interested in the language used. Kingsnorth began writing in modern English, but felt this grated (and certainly the language used in historical novels is a bugbear of mine). Then he thought about Old English, but this would be unreadable to all but academics. Eventually he settled on what he calls a ‘shadow tongue’, a language somewhere between Old English and modern English. The reader is thus dropped into an alien world ‘without a lifebelt’, but from what I’ve read so far the language is striking and evocative, and makes appealing and sometimes beautiful prose. There is a glossary (though I studied Old English at university and remembered the vocab quite quickly), and it’s fascinating to read a book with no Gallicisms, and no modern words – nothing sounds out of place. When I was about 8 my father showed me a book written in Old English, which I didn’t understand, and then read some to me, and I quickly realised how the sounds have changed less than the words and it suddenly made sense, and this feeling of a spoken language which can quickly become more familiar than we expect is present in The Wake, too. I was so inspired by the talk that I rushed off to buy the last copy and got it signed. I’ll report back when I’ve read it!

Finally, I went to a panel lecture on Pevsner’s Cornwall, chaired by Sir Richard Carew-Pole. He introduced the subject, pointing out Nikolaus Pevsner- The Life by Susie Harriesthat Cornwall was the first in the original Buildings of England series, published in 1951, revised 1971, and with a new edition out this year, by Peter Beacham. The panel spoke about the history of Pevsner’s series, with some lovely reminiscences about the man. One of the speakers was Susie Harries, the author of the Pevsner biography (which I’m now keen to read); she told us how what is now seen as a quintessentially English series was begun by a young German academic with an interest in modernist art. As a young academic, Pevsner was sent to England by his university to learn about English architecture for a course he was teaching. Not long after his return, he lost his job because he was from a Russian-Jewish family, and ended up in England as an ‘art odd-job man’, who eventually ended up writing for the Architectural Review, becoming editor during the war. When Penguin approached him to ask what he thought they should be doing, he suggested what he had wanted on his first visit to England: a county by county guide to architecture. What he ended up producing was not a history or a travel guide, but just about architectural styles, though he struggled sometimes with how much historic detail to include, a struggle which Peter Beacham has also had. Yet ultimately Pevsner was sad to have become essentially a ‘compiler’, doing no original research because of the success of the Buildings of England series. Yet Joe Mordaunt-Crook spoke of the range of Pevsner’s work; apparently he spoke of himself as a general practitioner of architectural history, specialising in nothing but with a remarkable knowledge, which many people have benefitted from. He used to claim that the secret for a contented life was to ‘find out what you’re good at and keep doing it’, which is exactly what he did.

Nikolaus-Pevsner-007Peter Beacham is a keen defender of the original series, but without unnecessary reverence; there were limitations (partly due to petrol rationing) and mistakes, so the new edition offers much more whilst remaining a part of the original (and correcting a mistake about Withiel church which no one had pointed out in 65 years!) The architecture of Cornwall is unique in many ways, especially as a centre for Gothic revival architecture; neglected by the established church for centuries, Henry Philpotts, a Victorian bishop of Exeter tried to inject traditional ecclesiastical architecture into the county, including repairs of many churches in the Tractarian tradition. The biggest challenge for Beacham was to retain a sense of place iCornwalln his work; while Pevsner felt he had neither talent nor space for this, Beacham felt that, especially in such an atmospheric county as Cornwall, this was important and has tried to include this. There were a few places where Pevsner ‘let himself go’ and did discuss historical context; Tintagel was one.

Finally, Giles Clotworthy, who spent time on the road with Pevsner, gave some amusing and enlightening anecdotes about his time travelling with the man himself, after having been taught by him at the Courtauld Institute of Art. His five weeks as Pevsner’s driver were perhaps the most gruelling of his life, and, having also travelled with Peter Beacham, confirms that the latter enabled him to spend more time in pubs and take things a bit easier! With Pevsner, ‘Private’ signs on land meant little, and when staff with pitchforks emerged to drive the intruders away, Pevsner instructed Giles to put his foot down to get them out of there. Then, they would eat fudge.

My notes are so extensive I can only give a flavour of the discussion, but (having grown up with the Buildings of England series all around me, I was filled with enthusiasm for the man who devoted his life to them, and the enduring power both of the architecture and the books about it.

How Coffee, Art and Politics can change the world

coffee1668_2171668bMy second blog from my Port Eliot notes focuses on some things which have changed – or could change – the world. The first is Matthew Green’s research on coffee houses, and how they inspired brilliant ideas and (at least potentially) changed the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Dr Green is a historian, who focuses on popular history, bringing his work to a wide range of audiences through talks like this one at the Idler Academy and also through tours and audio (see here for more detail). When the first coffee house opened in London in the seventeenth century, the coffee was ‘black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love’, and tasted disgusting. Yet coffee houses became somewhere to meet, to discuss the latest news, politics and poetry, as well as to get the gossip. The sociable atmosphere is a far cry from your local coffee chain where probably everyone is huddled over a laptop, but Green attributes the startling social changes effected by the coffee house to…caffeine. Not only is it a stimulant, but in the days when drinking water was unsafe, it stopped people drinking small beer or ale all day, so for the first time many people became sober and enjoyed a fresh clarity of thought. Pepys was delighted by the diversity of company and discourse, and they flourished across London and changed aspects of society for good.

Women, however, hated them; only prostitutes would go into them, and it took men away from their homes to a new centre of interest, turning men into ‘babbling layabouts’. Yet the coffee house continued – Hogarth’s father opened a Latin coffee house where all conversation was in Latin (it lasted 8 months). There was a brothel coffee house, a coffee house on ice, a floating coffee house on the Thames, and so on – all had their own flavour and interests, and it was possible to find somewhere to meet like-minded people.

This contrasts strongly with what Green calls the ‘empty hell’ of modern coffee houses, where interaction is often at a minimum. Politeness, and the polishing of urbane social manners grew out of the coffee house culture in which interaction with others enabled one to perfect wit, style and manners. Social structures were upheld or demolished according to the talk of the coffee houses. Their demise was caused by gambling, tea and new technology (such as the telegraph, to spread news), but we saw something similar in the rise of the espresso bars in the 1950s when again drinking coffee in a social public place became a marker of urban sophistication. The 50s bars saw the birth of rock and roll and an emphasis on the individuality of the coffee bars – a far cry from coffee chains. However, this idea seems to be returning.

From coffee to art: another speaker we heard was Young British Artist Gavin Turk, in conversation with Rachel Newsome about the gavin-turk-abook This is Not a Book about Gavin Turk. The book, written about rather than by Turk, explores some of the ideas of his work, and the discussion commenced with the idea of the artist as outsider, and Turk’s use of personas in his art. He is interested in ‘getting to the edge of where something is not art’, he says, defining the centre by being on the edge. He added that it is only the frame that separates the art from the wall – we decide where the limits are, so those boundaries are flexible. The conversation went on to cover the idea of modern cultural identity and how the artist might appropriate it, and how concepts of branding are tied up with a sense of self. I was interested in the idea of art in the marketplace (is it still art if no one sees it – or buys it?) Again this is about framing and how we position things.

Turk suggests that in order to create Gavin Turk the Artist he had to kill himself – his old identity – and rebrand himself, to the extent that he sometimes wonders who he is. It’s clear that he has positioned himself as an intellectual artist, but he does rather come across as a student who has just discovered theory and wants to use all the words at once to show how clever he is. Although there were some interesting ideas, none of them were new.

And for something completely different: Shami Chakrabati, the Director of Liberty, the human rights organisation which is 80 this year, in discussion with Rosie Boycott. Though Chakrabati’s work may be controversial, it seems impossible not to like her – she comes across as disarmingly frank, passionate and even fun. She talked about the complacency that Britain has been able to feel for so Shami-Chakrabartilong when it comes to human rights issues, but suggested that perhaps  after a period of abuses of power including the Iraq war, the banking crisis, loss of faith in the police, the behaviour of some journalists etc, we are becoming less so, and the public thus needs the tools to hold those in power to account. Currently, the concerns about privacy and the use of our data are a hot topic, and Chakrabati spoke convincingly about the issues with this. As she says, we are social creatures and so privacy is not an absolute right, but it is also necessary for intimacy and for political freedom, among other things.

For Liberty’s 80th year she is writing a book, looking at how rights and freedoms have been eroded and telling the story of her time at Liberty through true stories. At the end, someone asked her how she feels about having to ‘defend the indefensible’, and she replied that ‘Abu Qatada stalks me like an ugly ex-boyfriend’ and that, while the public must be protected and wrongdoers deserve to face justice, who can choovagenda_zero21se who deserves a fair trial and who doesn’t?

More women on top are Hollie and Rhiannon of the Vagenda blog (sub-title: ‘Like King Lear, but for Girls’). They were there to talk about their book, which I bought as their main issue is the representation of gender in the media, something that my students are often interested in. I didn’t get to hear all of their talk, but they discussed the controversial, contradictory and guilt-inducing ways of women’s magazines, which ostensibly promote independence whilst encouraging women to maintain impossible standards of beauty, criticise celebrities for their appearances and generally undermine the concept of sisterhood. The impetus behind their blog was to encourage women to be more supportive of each other, and to establish a new, modern feminism which doesn’t require particular feminist credentials or divide women up as ‘radical feminists’, ‘black feminists’ or even ‘not a proper feminist’ – Vagenda is holding out against the ‘feminist checklist’. I’ve noticed the tendency for feminist women to criticise other feminist women (and other women generally) and it’s disappointing, as well as rather antithetical to the original spirit of women’s liberation, so this is all to the good as far as I’m concerned.

Writing women, working women, idle women

I am finally wading through the copious notes I took at the Port Eliot Festival, as I wanted to give a flavour of some of the talks I heard. The variety is reRJmarkable, but I’ve tried to come up with coherent groups so I don’t weary readers too much!


Me taking notes!

First, then, Rachel Johnson at The Idler Academy. Former editor of The Lady, novelist and (among other things) sister of Boris, Rachel had been asked to talk about ‘How to be an Idle Woman’. It’s important to define the idleness here: for The Idler, idleness is not sloth, laziness or apathy; it is spending time doing something t
hat you love, that makes you happy, but that isn’t necessarily productive and that you do because you choose to – or ‘a spiritual place for ourselves’. Rachel’s approach, apparently, is to find a job which pays you to sustain your idleness – that is, which pays maximum money for minimum hours. In her case, this is writing, which enables her to spend a lot of time playing tennis. A lot of her talk was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but she made some interesting points about ‘idleness as a feminist issue’ – because women are less likely to spend time doing something for themselves than men, and also tend to ‘work even in their absence’, leaving dinners prepared for family when they go out, for example. Women should be unapologetic about their idleness – an idea I like, though personally I struggle to spend time doing something I see as unproductive. (In fact I concluded that visiting Port Eliot was my own indulgence in idleness). Lack of focus makes Rachel less successful, she thinks, but as long as she’s happy, that’s a price she’s prepared to pay – which seems to me a fairly healthy attitude in a world where everything seems to be tradeable, a consumer product which we are sold pre-packaged: spending time investing our emotions in what we love seems like a good idea to me. To be busy is fashionable, she says, so to be idle and happy we need to buck the trend.

Next to Deborah Levy, whose novel Swimming Home I reviewed when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011. Her latest book is a kind of long essay, entitled Things I Don’t Want to Know; it’s a response to George Orwell’s Why I Write. Levy has some compelling things to say about writing, and writing women; she describes her writing as being about displacement – ‘on the angle between the self and the world’. Her writing crosses genres – novels, essays, poems, short stories, and screenplays, as well as an interest in theatre.

The latest book responds to Orwell’s sections on ‘Historical Impulse’, ‘Egoism’, etc, and leads Levy to explore her life and writing, and, as she put it, ‘give the ideas an airing from the female writer’s point of view.’ There is much, then, that is biographical in her essay, and it sounds as though it will be illuminating for her work, but also much more wide-reaching. She reflects on motherhood, marriage, work, the conflicts of womanhood, and links it to a network of other women writers, including Virginia Woolf and Marguerite Duras. This is one of the books I bought and I’m looking forward to reading it.

I also heard Rachel Cooke speak about her book Her Brilliant Career (which I also bought). I’d read a number of reviews of this and was looking forward to hearing about this history of working women in the Fifties. Cooke started by saying that the history of the Fifties has been somewhat neglected by male historians, which I think is true, but her argument was that this is because men are interested in events while women are interested in lives and stories. I need to think further about this but I find this gendered images0KNMGA7Rdichotomy rather uncomfortable, though in general it may be true. However, she clearly weaves a compelling tale about how the Fifties tend to be seen as regressive, but offered many opportunities for post-war women with a taste for work and freedom. Cooke chose women whose personal and professional lives were interesting, and explores how they came to be so successful (often at the cost of their family lives). Some had ‘modern marriages’ in which men supported their wives’ work, sharing domestic tasks; in fact, Cooke discovered, other women were more repressive of these ambitions than men. We heard some interesting anecdotes from the book, culminating in the suggestion that ‘A difficult man is a genius; a difficult woman is just difficult’, which certainly seems historically true. A rethink of the gender roles of the Fifties seems timely, especially at a time when the domestic goddess in her frilly pinny seems to be on the rise.

I also attended a discussion panel celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Jane Howard. Though seen as less than literary, her novels have been enjoyed by many, and I’ve always rather liked them (good holiday reading) and her autobiography, Slipstream, was honest and well-written. The panel (including Rachel Cooke again) asked why it is that her novels have this less-than-literary stigma, concluding that perhaps it is because she is so honest about the lives of women. Her women characters – like herself – are vulnerable, difficult (that word again!Rachel Cooke), often immoral, and not always nice. But Howard is also frank about things that perhaps the literary establishment doesn’t approve of – sex in marriage, shopping, the boredom of life as well as it’s unexpected pleasures. She also wrote well about sisterhood, and the need for intimacy between women as a nourishing aspect in a world where men are both lovers and enemies, and she is a perspicacious and convincing writer of children characters. There are many ways in which these female characters can be related to Howard’s life, though I’m uncomfortable reading the books as manifestations of autobiography, but it was fascinating to hear the panellists’ reminiscences of meeting Howard.

The discussion moved onto Howard’s life – her lovers, her marriage to Kingsley Amis, her view that ‘romantic love trumped friendship’ which led her into many emotional tangles, her difficult relationship with her children, and the way in which she framed her life (in Slipstream, in interviews etc) as an emotional failure whilst managing to be a great success as a popular writer. The Cazalet saga is considered to be her ‘great work’ and it is a remarkable absorbing series, which perhaps deserves more literary recognition of its author’s talent than it gets.

Port Eliot Festival: books and cocktails

photo1A while ago, I said to a friend that I would love to go to the Port Eliot Festival. She suggested we actually went, then – so we did. And it was wonderful. The festival is primarily literary – there are many talks by writers; but obviously this covers an awful lot of things, from fiction to numbers, clouds to history. There were also many bands on, and craft activities, gin bars (and other bars, but we spent quite a bit of time by the river in the Hendricks bar), a Wardrobe Department where you could have lovely flower headdresses, and some wonderful food, too. We were there for the whole weekend, and did quite a lot of things, but the difficulty is what to choose – there were so many things we didn’t do: we didn’t go to the nightclub in a rhododendron bush (though this did

Some of the books I brought back with me.

Some of the books I brought back with me.

appeal); we didn’t go wild swimming in the river (well, I can’t swim); we missed some talks that sounded great, but we also heard some really interesting and inspiring speakers; we didn’t hear much music.

What did we do? Well, I will blog about some of these in more detail in time, as I have pages and pages of notes, but I listened to:

Matthew Green talking about the origins of coffee-houses

Gavin Turk discussing his ideas on art

Rachel Johnson reflecting on ‘How to be an Idle Woman’ at the Idler Academy

Shami Chakrabati in conversation with Rosie Boycott

Hendricks gin bar

Hendricks gin bar

Holly and Rhiannon from Vagenda discussing the misogyny of the modern media

Deborah Levy talking about her latest book, Things I don’t want to know – a response to George Orwell’s Why I Write

Rachel Cooke in the DoveGreyReader tent, discussing her book Her Brilliant Career about career women in the 1950s

A celebration of the life and work of Elizabeth Jane Howard

A panel discussion of the new Buildings of Cornwall, including Pevsner biographer Susie Harries, Joe Mordaunt Crook, Peter Beacham (author of the new book) and Giles Clotworthy, chaired by Sir Richard Carew-Pole.

Murray Lachlan Young on Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood

Paul Kingsnorth, whose novel The Wake was recently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, on the origins and ideas 2014-07-27 19.23.21of his novel

And finally, a lovely surprise performance by Cornish choir Canoryan Lowen.
Some of these things I didn’t intend – or expect – to hear; I just stumbled across them, and that’s one of the delights of the festival – the serendipities and surprises. The house itself is also beautiful and was open to the public, with an exhibition about its First World War connections. I’ll blog more in due course!


Rhymes and Reasons: Poetry for children

downloadSmall children love poetry. Most adults, sadly, don’t. What happens in between? There seems to be a popular assumption that if you really like poetry (like me), you must be academic, a bit geeky, probably rather weird (like me). I don’t believe this; I think that too many people are put off poetry at school, perhaps by assumptions made by others around them that it’s ‘boring'; perhaps by exposure to a limited range of poems; perhaps by lacklustre teaching. But this is such a shame – I won’t go into why poetry is important, beautiful, necessary etc here (if you want more on this, read ‘How Poetry can Change Lives‘, which says it better than I can). When I’m teaching poetry to undergraduates, I often hear students say ‘I don’t understand it’. Often, it’s true, poetry doesn’t say things in the same straightforward way that prose does, but poetry is a lot more than just its projected ‘meaning’. I know this because my son, pre-verbal at less than a year old, loved me reading poetry to him; he heard a lot of Tennyson, Rossetti and Shakespeare (and anything else I had memorised) before he had any idea what words were, let alone how to interpret a poem. Of course he loved it – the rhythm, the sounds of the words in your mouth and in the air are hypnotic. How can you not be drawn in by Byron’s ‘The Destruction of Sennacharib’? If you don’t believe me, read it aloud.

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.images

What about Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’?

When the centuries behind me like a fruitful land reposed;
When I clung to all the present for the promise that it closed:
When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see;
Saw the Vision of the world and all the wonder that would be.—
In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast;
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;
In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove;
In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

Poems are meant to be read aloud, and one of the pleasures of having a small child is the reading process. Of course, it’s good for them in an educational sense, and in a bonding way too, but it is also fun. Now my son is nearly 3, we have a lot of children’s poems, including the omnipresent Julia Donaldson (my particular favourite is The Highway Rat because of my affection for Alfred Noyes’ poem), but mostly, we have A A Milne’s poems of Pooh Bear and Christopher Robin. They entertain parents as well as children; they have little morals (images (1)some of them) and are absolute nonsense (others). But what they have in common is a gentle repetition, rhymes, a steady, often galloping rhythm, and images which appeal to children. Like all the best children’s (and adults?) literature, they suggest ways in which the world might be better (‘King John’s Christmas’ opens ‘King John was not a good man’, but concludes ‘And oh! Father Christmas, my blessings on you fall, For bringing him a big, red, india-rubber ball!’) ‘The Dormouse and the Doctor‘ reminds us that other people don’t always know best (and is, in its way, a very sad poem). ‘Sneezles‘ reminds us not to get too stressed about children’s colds, while ‘Teddy Bear‘ shows us that fat can be beautiful. All good messages. Be warned, though – these are earworms of the most pernicious variety, and you will find yourself reciting them long after the children are in bed.

In the Fashion’ is Edward’s current favourite: it’s about how a little boy gets a tail because his favourite animals have them; as a result, I have had to make him his own tail (see picture). Another favourite is the completely pointless ‘Busy’, which I rather like because it exactly sums up a child’s life. We often hear Edward muttering ‘Round about and round about and round about and round about’ when he’s meant to be going to sleep:

I think I am a muffin man. I haven’t got a bell.
I haven’t got the muffin things that muffin people sell. 
Perhaps I am a postman. No I think I am a tram. IMG_1081
I’m feeling rather funny and I don’t know what I am–

Round about 
And round about
And round about I go–
All around the table,
The table in the nursery–
Round about 
And round about
And round about I go–

I think I am a traveller escaping from a bear;
I think I am an elephant
Behind another elephant
Behind another elephant who isn’t really there….

Round about 
And round about
And round about and round about 
And round about
And round about 
I go.

Grace Nichols, a judge of the Foyle Young Poets Award, wrote to the Guardian recently asking ‘Parents, pick poetry’. She points out that children are likely to get into poetry through their parents, and says that ‘a poem read aloud can hold children enthralled, awakening in them a new love of language. Poetry never forgets its roots in song. Children love the sound of words; the surprise of images; of getting their tongues around the music of vowels and consonants.’ She’s right, and perhaps if more children experienced this on a regular basis, more adults would instinctively love poetry too.

Gothic Art and Design

IMG_1526Last year I was contacted through this blog by someone organising an art and design project on Gothic in a school. She had read my post about what Gothic is and wanted to discuss it in more detail, and we have conversed by email and telephone. The project sounded fascinating: clearly a lot of research was going into it, and looking at ways in which Gothic might be interpreted and understood by children appealed to me, too. After all, children are always simultaneously fascinated and repelled by dark corners, scary monsters and gory tales (the popularity of Horrible Histories is just a modern continuation of this), and aspects of ‘grown-up’ Gothic are manifested in children’s literature from the eighteenth century onwards. This project sought to help the young students explore what Gothic was, how it appears all around us and is important in history and in popular culture, and offered them a chance to express their interpretations of it. The project has now finished, and I can’t praise the results highly enough. The children have interpreted what they saw, in books, on visits and in the world around them, and produced some wonderful images which express some of the crucial aspects of Gothic as well as demonstrating their own artistic skills.

I include as many photos as I can here, and below is a description of the project from its organiser, whose dedication to the children’s work is exemplary and has certainly paid off.

“My name is Joy Rickman and I have been running an Art and Design club for the last eight years. I work with children aged between 8 and 11 at Mount Stewart School in Kenton, Middlesex.

I involve the children in one large project each year and this year I opted for Gothic Design. I chose this topic as I was inspired by the magnificent architecture at the St Pancras Hotel and as I noticed that at the time (last November) the British film institute were also promoting the Gothic genre. My aim was to inspire, raise awareness and educate the children about all things Gothic. Although I had an image of the finished work in my mind,

I have always found that it pays to have a flexible approach to fit in with the children’s abilities. I started my research at my local library, but I was disappointed with the lack of information available there. Eventually I found a performing arts library which had IMG_1535superb books on Gothic architecture and film.

I presented the children with various images of Gothic design and ornament as well as famous characters from the world of Gothic fiction. We looked at costume, jewellery and literature as well as easily identifiable architectural features and areas such as Camden market. A few weeks into the project some of the children started to notice Gothic features in local churches and a few brought in samples of jewellery and studded boots!

As the project developed, I noticed that several children had a real flair for Gothic architecture. I named this group “The Architects” and gave them the challenge of designing a Gothic castle, working from just a couple of drawings. I have three display boards to use and as the design of the castle progressed it became clear that it would take centre stage. The other two boards were used for displays of Gothic fiction and elements of Gothic design.

In April the Art Club visited Strawberry Hill House. I knew that seeing and feeling the Gothic atmosphere would make the project come alive, and sure enough the children thought the best part of the visit was choosing and putting on the costumes in the dressing–up room. The children IMG_1559were given the task of making up their own Gothic horror story, using photographs to create a cartoon. They were given cameras and encouraged to make the best use of the interesting light effects for their photos.  After lunch the children were taken into the classroom and given lap tops installed with a programme that would allow them to place their photographs into a comic format and the add appropriate speech bubbles. This proved to be quite a demanding activity requiring the children to focus as time was limited. However I knew the children would rise to the challenge and they produced some interesting stories with chilling effects.

A school trip is never complete without a trip to “the shop” and the children were very keen to buy as many mementoes as possible. It was a wonderful day and I feel it gave the children a glimpse into the intriguing IMG_1558Gothic world. I am always amazed at the tenacity of the children when presented with images that appear impossible to draw and understand. They very rarely give up and I think they have produced work of a very high standard. I feel immensely proud of them and feel privileged to be able to work with children who have displayed such dedication, flair and achievement.”

Congratulations to Joy and the children of Mount Stewart School’s Art and Design club! I’m looking forward to seeing what their next project is.

The mysterious Emma Sandys

20140706-093540-pm-77740670.jpgWhile preparing for a recent lecture, I spent some time investigating Emma Sandys, the sister of the more famous Frederick. This is because one of her paintings, Lady holding a Rose, hangs on the wall at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, though it does not appear in their online catalogue and there is virtually no information about it. But I wanted to talk about it because I wanted to make sure that a woman was represented in my narrative, and not just as a model or ‘muse’. Consequently, I decided to explore a bit more widely, but discovered that the usual sources of information on Pre-Raphaelite women (Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn’s books – though I gather that more recent editions than mine contain more) barely mention Emma Sandys. In fact, there is hardly anything written about her at all – though she does have a very basic Wikipedia entry which tells me her dates (1843-1877), that she painted portraits, often in a medieval style, and may have shared a studio with the debauched Frederick.

Not a great deal to go on, then. I feel a research project coming on. It transpires that many of her paintings have only recently been attributed to her: they were previously considered to have been the work of her brother, and recent research (which I haven’t been able to find out much about) has led to a number of paintings (several of them owned by the National Trust) finally being acknowledged as the work of Emma rather than Frederick. This is a common problem in art hisElainetory, of course – that the default is that paintings were probably by men, though the last thirty years have seen considerable redressing of the balance.

Emma Sandys’ paintings are fascinating: her medievalism clearly owes a great deal to Pre-Raphaelitism, and she is keen on picturing women in a reverie, gazing wistfully out of the frame and away from the viewer. She captures women who are enclosed in their own worlds, and I rather like this. Her medieval aesthetic extends to several Arthurian-based paintings (as does her brother’s), including ‘Elaine’, owned by the National Trust. Elaine was the Maid of Astolat, who fell in love with Lancelot du Lac in the myths of Arthur. Her love was doomed to be unrequited, and Emma Sandys’ painting shows her dressed richly, gazing longingly and sadly as she waits for a love that will never be hers. Similar in concept is ‘Enid’, of which I haven’t been able to track down an image. Enid was the wife of Geraint, a knight of the court of King Arthur, whose relationship with her husband sours after a misunderstanding, and who is put to the test and proves her love and loyalty after many trials. These patient, enduring women Emma Sandysseem closely related to the unnamed ‘Lady holding a Rose’ at BMAG, and my (wild, but harmless) speculation is that this woman might be Guinevere herself, with Camelot in the background, pondering her difficult situation as she is torn between her love for her husband Arthur (represented by the honeysuckle, meaning loyalty in the Victorian language of flowers) and Lancelot, indicated by the roses, which stand for passion.

We know so little of Emma Sandys’ life that we have little more than speculation to go on, but I hope to find out more. If you have any suggestions, please get in touch!