Blood swept lands and seas of red

IMG_1384In London recently, we went to the Tower of London to see the poppies. If you haven’t yet seen them, you haven’t got long – they will only be there until November 11th 2014. The poppies are ceramic, and the concept is a piece of installation art by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and theatre designer Tom Piper. The idea is to mark the centenary of the First World War with a sea of poppies, filling the moat of the Tower; there will be 888,246 poppies, one for each fallen soldier. Poppies are, of course, the symbol of remembrance for the war dead; before the war, they represented peaceful sleep after death, as you can see in many Victorian paintings (including Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix), but this symbolism was layered with remembrance of those who died in the poppy fields of Flanders, and the wearing of a poppy on November 11th now commemorates the dead of other wars, too.

The metaphor of the poppies is clear, then: each one representing a military death, it gives IMG_1379a sense of scale as well as individuality to each, perhaps forgotten, soldier. The effect of the installation at the Tower is remarkable; most visitors are awestruck by the sheer number of small flowers filling the moat, and the fact that each of these represents a death is sobering. But there are further visual impressions created by it; the Tower, as a symbol of Britain, seems to be literally weeping blood: the poppies cascade down the ramparts and fill the moat with seemingly endless ‘seas of red’. The installation is evolving, too: poppies are added to it so that it grows, gradually, and each day at sunset the names of some of the Commonwealth war dead are read aloud as the Tower bleeds its poppies. There is certainly something very theatrical about it, unsurprisingly given Piper’s involvement, but it is dignified, appropriate, and startling. I like that it is such a public commemoration, too; we went on a Monday lunchtime and it was surrounded by quiet tourists, taking photographs and talking about it. It seems a fitting way to remember, without – in my view – being particularly sentimental or emotional about it.

The title of the exhibit is taken from a poem of the same name by an unknown soldier:

The blood swept lands and seas of red,
Where angels dare to tread.
As God cried a tear of pain as the angels fell,
Again and again.
As the tears of mine fell to the ground
To sleep with the flowers of red
As any be dead
My children see and work through fields of my
Own with corn and wheat,
Blessed by love so far from pain of my resting
Fields so far from my love.
It be time to put my hand up and end this painIMG_1381
Of living hell. to see the people around me
Fall someone angel as the mist falls around
And the rain so thick with black thunder I hear
Over the clouds, to sleep forever and kiss
The flower of my people gone before time
To sleep and cry no more
I put my hand up and see the land of red,
This is my time to go over,
I may not come back
So sleep, kiss the boys for me


Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

Virginia_Woolf_by_George_Charles_Beresford_(1902)I find Virginia Woolf fascinating. It took me a few years to appreciate her novels, though I read and loved her non-fiction much younger, but I’ve been rereading her novels over the last year or so and am finding it a wonderful experience. Not only do her feminist views and approaches to women’s writing appeal to me, I find her novels give the best perspective of the way I (and presumably others) think that it’s the most immersive reading. I like how engaged she was with history, art and music, and I like that she was interested in clothes, too, as a way of representing ourselves (particularly apparent in Orlando) – and she appeared in Vogue, ‘merging high fashion with high culture’. Now, thanks to the exhibition Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision at the National Portrait Gallery, I discover she crocheted, too.

The exhibition, accompanied by an excellent catalogue by Frances Spalding (which I had to buy) explores the complex web that was Woolf’s life, through paintings of her and by those around her (in Bloomsbury), photographs, books, letters etc. The introductory panel points out the privacy Woolf wished to maintain in order to live a writer’s life, which contrasts with our desire to ‘know’ writers, and the fascination we feel for those whose books we love. But there seems little prurience here, and the focus is on the public, writerly side of Woolf, though it is also a pleasure to see pictures of her home (published in Vogue) and portraits of herself and her family and friends. vanessa-bell-conversation

‘Who was I then?’ she asked, and we are still asking exactly who she was, and trying to understand how her mind worked and produced such delicate, radical and absorbing novels and essays. From the ‘eminent Victorians’ who dominated her young mind (including her father, Leslie Stephen, as well as Tennyson, Browning et al) to the influence of the Bloomsbury set, including her husband, Leonard Woolf, painters including her sister Vanessa Bell and her husband Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey and the modernist critic Roger Fry. Well-connected throughout her life, this exhibition highlights how her circle grew from her family and those around her, and offer a tranquil picture of her life. But there is much more to it than that: the daily absorption in literature, art and music created Woolf’s own unique vision (perhaps contributing to the accusation that her work is ‘elitist’) is imagined here through the exhibits.

mother's dressIn fact, rather than elitist, the exhibition suggests that the Woolfs were intentionally practising ‘cultural inclusiveness’ through the Hogarth Press, with works which ‘promoted democracy, anti-imperialism and anti-war arguments, publishing books that cut across the divides created by class, education and nationality.’

One of my favourite twentieth century paintings is here: Vanessa Bell’s A Conversation, which balances the mood between gossipy and serious, and contains echoes of how we (think they) lived at Charleston. In fact the exhibition is also illuminating of the changing forms and styles of Bell’s and Grant’s work, as well as demonstrating their ability to capture characters. There are also many delightful books from the Hogarth Press which the Woolfs set up, with eye-catching covers very resonant of the period, and including not only Woolf’s own work but that of her contemporaries. She seemed to know everyone – from TS Eliot to James Joyce; there are also letters here to Katherine Mansfield, with whom she seems to have had a volatile virginia-woolf_1652005cfriendship. Another little bit of information: I was fascinated to find out that the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner proposed to Woolf’s mother, who was connected to Pre-Raphaelite circles through her family. Woolf was photographed for Vogue in Woolner’s house, and wore her mother’s gown for the occasion.

Her last letters to Vanessa and Leonard are here, and the final item is a painting by Duncan Grant in 1960, Still Life with Bust of Virginia Woolf, Charleston. Now, the beautiful woman with the soulful eyes of the earlier paintings and photographs is replaced with a more severe representation; she is doubly memorialised here, the eyes blank but surrounded by books and the reminders of her life’s work.


The sublime Gothic landscape

IMG_1280While I tend to find a bit of Gothic in everything, sometimes it stares you in the face, and onIMG_1288 a recent visit to the landscape gardens at Stowe I felt as though I was walking back into the eighteenth century. The grounds are run by the National Trust, while Stowe School occupies the house and surrounding buildings. From the 1730s Stowe was renowned for its gardens, with visitors coming from all over the world to see them, but in the 1740s ‘Capability’ Brown, at the beginning of his career, was appointed to redesign the grounds, and though some of the original features (such as the temple) were kept, the more formal aspects of the garden vanished, with the idea of ‘landscape’ taking over.

Viscount Cobham, the man responsible for taking on the young Brown to reshape his gardens, was part of the beginning of a revolution in taste, of which Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House was a part. Instead of the formal gardens with neat flowerbeds and rows of strictly planted trees, the fashion was for something more exotic, thrilling and sublime. TheIMG_1285 sublime is key here: though Edmund Burke’s On the Sublime and the Beautiful (1857) wasn’t published until a decade later, the thinking behind it was forming. Burke wrote that ‘The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature … is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.’ In a socially acceptable way, this is what such gardens did. Stowe is designed so that with every corner turned, another surprise awaits the walker; temples, grottos, statues, lakes – all is laid before us so that entertainment and amazement accompany every step. Some of the surprises come with a frisson of Gothic terror, too: imagine the grotto, for example, with its waterfall and cavernous space, in the twilight, and it is the perfect setting for Mrs IMG_1287Radcliffe’s novels.

In 1748, William Gilpin wrote an imaginary dialogue between two (classically-named!) visitors to Stowe, which emphasises just these points:

‘Polypth. Yes, indeed, I think the Ruin a great Addition to the Beauty of the Lake. There is something so vastly picturesque, and pleasing to the Imagination in such Objects, that they are a great Addition to every Landskip. And yet perhaps it would be hard to assign a reason, why we are more taken with Prospects of this ruinous kind, than with Views of Plenty and Prosperity in their greatest Perfection: Benevolence and Good-nature, methinks, are more concerned in the latter kind.

Calloph. Yes: but cannot you make a distinction between natural and moral Beauties? Our social Affections undoubtedly find their Enjoyment the most compleat when they contemplate, a Country smiling in the midst of Plenty, where Houses are well-built, Plantations regular, and every thing the most commodious and useful. But such Regularity and Exactness excites no manner of Pleasure in the Imagination, unless they are made use of to contrast with something of an opposite kind. The Fancy is struck by Nature alone; and if Art does any thing more than improve her, we think she grows IMG_1284impertinent, and wish she had left off a little sooner. Thus a regular Building perhaps gives very little pleasure; and yet a fine Rock, beautifully set off in Ciaro-obscuro, and garnished with flourishing Bushes, Ivy, and dead Branches, may afford us a great deal; and a ragged Ruin, with venerable old Oaks, and Pines nodding over it, may perhaps please the Fancy yet more than either of the other two Objects. – Yon old Hermitage, situated in the midst of this delightful Wilderness, has an exceeding good Effect: it is of the romantick Kind; and Beauties of this sort, where a probable Nature is not exceeded, are generally pleasing.’

IMG_1310The sublime is an intrinsic part of the Gothic because it provokes both pain and pleasure, as Burke wrote, and because it encourages the mind to wander in the direction of the soul, and to expand our thinking. Kant wrote that  ‘Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt’. The gardens are arranged so that it feels as though one could walk forever: every turn offers a new prospect, and the thoughts do indeed wander along different paths as you go. The Gothic revival features at Stowe in buildings including a Gothic temple, which I understand one can stay in, alongside classical temples, statues, columns and the marvellous Palladian Bridge.

So this garden, like a few others of the period, features the Gothic – a carefully cultivated wildness which appealed to the emotions – and the classical, a more ordered and symmetrical style, reminiscent of distant places and cultures. The potential clash of cultures adds to the appeal of the place, I thinIMG_1313k. Timothy Mowl points out in Gentlemen Gardeners that Brown’s work at Stowe in fact offers ‘a three-in-hand of the classical, the Gothic and the Chinese.’ There is another element, however, which really interested me: the seven statues of Anglo-Saxon deities, sculpted by Rysbrack. In a clearing, where one might usually expect to see statues of classical origin, such as Athena or Neptune, we see now-obscure English deities (from whom the days of the week are derived) who seem to assert Englishness over the classical and Gothic elements of the gardens. It’s been suggested that this was a strong Whig assertion of British nationalism at a time when this was on the rise – perhaps not only politically motivated but also part of a rise in romantic nationalism, as a nostalgia for England’s history grew – something which IMG_1281the Gothic novel often played upon. In fact the political aspects of the garden are fascinating; Viscount Cobham used the grounds as a vehicle for expressing his contempt for his political rivals.

I was overwhelmed with the beauty and the planning of the gardens: whether a visitor takes a short or a long walk, it is all laid out for convenience and enjoyment. The map alone gives an idea of the delights in store: The Temple of Ancient Virtue, The Sleeping Wood, Circle of the Dancing Faun, Congreve’s Monument, Season’s Fountain, and Captain Grenville’s Column, to mention just a few. It’s easy to see why Viscount Cobham’s gardens were so popular with his many visitors (apparently Catherine of Russia enjoyed them so much that she copied them in the grounds of Catherine’s Palace near St Petersburg).

There is a fascinating poem by Gilbert West, written in 1832, which celebrates Stowe and many of the aspects which were not disturbed by Brown. A great deal more information on Stowe can be found here, and the National Trust page for Stowe is here.


King Charles III: Future History

When (if) you tKing Charles IIIhink about the accession to the throne of the Prince of Wales, what do you imagine? A very different monarchy to that of his mother, I expect,  and one about which public opinion will differ, but unlike playwright Mike Bartlett, it’s unlikely you’d picture Charles challenging the constitutional roles of state and monarch before he’d even been crowned. It’s a somewhat implausible idea, but that really doesn’t matter; King Charles III uses a semi-Shakespearean plot to explore the role of monarchy and Parliament in the UK, as well as politics, the press, and our attitudes towards our current royal family. There’s also a good helping of identity crisis, and all this is done through the medium of a history play which is definitely ‘after Shakespeare’.

The play opens with a beautiful requiem for Elizabeth II, followed by the appearance of the heir, Charles (Tim Piggott-Smith), and his wife Camilla. It quickly becomes apparent that Charles has mixed feelings about inheriting the throne at this late stage in his life, and his principled uncertainty is contrasted with the likeable, media-friendly William and Kate, and the scampish Harry. In fact, all the royal family are portrayed as relatable, sympathetic characters placed in often untenable situations where they want to do their best for their country but are bound by law, public opinion, the press, and their own backgrounds.

Charles is quickly introduced to the world of politics when he is asked by the Labour Prime Minister to sign a new law restricting the freedom ofimages the press. Though he accepts that the press will rarely justify any faith placed in them, he sees it as a matter of principle that the government should not be able to decide what is and is not acceptable for publication, and refuses to sign. What ensues is a battle of wills, and law, between Charles and the politicians. These latter (from the two main political parties) are shown as weasel-like, with flexible principles and full of double-speak, while Charles himself becomes a King Lear figure, confused, miserable, attempting to do the best he can but beset with doubts and surrounded by enemies.

In fact, the play is suffused with echoes of Shakespeare; it’s written in blank verse, which makes it sound Shakespearean (whilst retaining a modern sense of language with contemporary references etc), and often it seems to stop just short of using Shakespearean phrases. I was almost expecting to hear ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child’ at one point, and Kate does say ‘Nothing will come of nothing’ at one point (or something like it). There is certainly a feeling of ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’, and some of the humorous moments of the play king_charles_iii148.jpgcome from Diana’s ghost stalking the ramparts. There are even moments when Kate – a feminist princess who requires equal recognition with William – seems to be leaning towards the character of Lady Macbeth. In fact, Kate is a realist, who understands the media, the public and the modern requirements of the monarchy better than Charles or William; she also slyly alludes to Hilary Mantel’s comments by referring to herself as a ‘plastic doll’, and she plays the part of queen long before she gets there.

Harry, meanwhile, is a tragi-comic figure not unlike the Fool in Lear: sometimes he speaks the truth unwittingly, and injects moments of slightly uncomfortable humour, but he is also concerned with his own purpose and identity. He meets Jess, a republican art student from St Martin’s, and goes on a spree of learning not unlike Pulp’s Common Peoplelearning about supermarkets and takeaways. The plot relies on this to a certain extent, since the press publishes some unsavoury pictures of Jess, Harry’s girlfriend, which under the new laws might have been suppressed, so the refusal of Charles to sign becomes doubly potent within his family.

The play asks some big questions, about the (un)constitutional relationship between crown and state, about what we want or expect from a monarchy, and about the freedom of the press. It also emphasises the psychological and philosophical difficulties of those brought up to inherit a throne. There aren’t answers, and the ending is uncomfortable and thought-provoking – making audiences wonder if what the public wants is always the right thing. However, don’t think this is a humourless play; it’s full of knowing quips, contemporary allusions, puns, jokes and moments of laughter. The actors are so convincing that they don’t even need to resemble their real-life counterparts; avoiding caricature, they play them with conviction. I don’t often get to the theatre these days, so when I do I want to see something I really enjoy. King Charles III  definitely qualified as something I enjoyed. It’s thought-provoking, well-written and performed, so I’d definitely recommend it. I was encouraged to see it by some really interesting reviews (such as this one).

A church in the best possible taste

photo 5Croome Court is a National Trust property not far from Worcester, and one I particularly enjoy visiting because of the variety of things to see there, including the Neo-Palladian house, designed by Capability Brown and visited by several monarchs (and once occupied by Hare Krishnas, surprisingly). The grounds are beautiful and extensive (also designed by Brown) and including follies and a grotto (I do like a nice grotto, though this one lacks a hermit, sadly). The site was used as a secret airbase (RAF Defford) during the Second World War, and the buildings that remain from this period in its history are now the visitors’ centre and canteen.

What particularly caught my attention last time I visited, though, was the Church of St Mary Magdalene, no longer in use, but in a good state of repair (due to the Churches Conservation Trust, who have restored it ‘in the spirit of’ Adam’s original design) and remarkable in many ways. An earlier building on the site was knocked down to make way for this building, designed by Capability Brown and with an interior by Robert Adam. What appphoto 2eals to me is that it is a fantastic example of Gothic Revival architecture. Completed in 1763, this church represents the first wave of Gothic architecture in England, around the same time that Walpole was doing up his ‘little cottage’ at Strawberry Hill as a Gothic castle, inspired by the soaring ecclesiastical buildings of early Europe. The decor, the shapes of the windows and the church furniture, the elaborate monuments and the muted colour scheme all reek of a Gothic aesthetic. Nikolaus Pevsner, a font of all architectural knowledge fondly referred to by my father as ‘Uncle Nick’,  in Buildings of Worcestershire, says:

‘The church, as originally planned by Brown, 1758, was to be classical, with tetrastyle portico. As built it is medievalizing: one of the most serious of the early Gothic Revival outside, one of the most beautiful within. With its W[est] tower and large E[ast] window, it must have looked perfectly convincing from the house as well as the road.’

He goephoto 3s on to say that ‘Adam’s interior is pure Georgian Gothic’, though one does wonder how much he approves given that he talks about the ‘monuments choking it within’ as well as the unusually long chancel. There are, indeed, many monuments; in fact, they are the reason the chancel is long, because the family monuments from the previous, demolished church are there alongside other, more recent ones, and the effect is of a mausoleum in the best possible (if slightly cramped) taste. The monuments tend towards the sculptural, reminding visitors of the money and pomp which underpinned the building of this elegant church. It is impressive, and of its time in a historically and culturally fascinating way, but one suspects it had less to do with glorifying God than with elevating the Earls of Coventry, the residents of Croome Court, for whom, as Pevsner suggests, it was mainly an ‘eye-catcher’ for their landscape.

photo 1


RubyOn holiday this year I visited the lovely Penlee House Gallery, hoping to see one of their (relatively) recent acquisitions: Ruby, by Thomas Cooper Gotch. Sadly it wasn’t on display, but I did buy a lovely postcard of it, and hope to see it next time I’m there. The gallery bought it with help from the Art Fund back in 2012. They already (I believe) have Gotch’s Girl in a Cornish Garden, a painting which cements his Newlyn School credentials as an artist, but Gotch changed his ideas and style of painting after some travelling: though he was instrumental in the founding of the Newlyn Gallery and very much a ‘plein air’ painter in the Newlyn style, he later became influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and began to paint in the rich colours and crisp lines of the PRB.

Ruby (c. 1909) is unusual in many ways. Gotch’s paintings tend to include a lot of children (such as the celestial Alleluia, in Tate Britain) and he paints them in jewel-like colours which make give the viewer the uncanny feeling that a child is standing in front of them. But Ruby (based on a local Cornish girl) is more than that: she is red-haired, like other Pre-Raphaelite women, and she is also scarlet-cheeked and clad in a crimson cloak – the painting, against a dull grey background, flames out like a beacon. As a redhead myself, I knowThomas_Cooper_Gotch_-_Alleluia_1896 there are assumptions that redheads shouldn’t wear red, but this little girl is deliberately defying it: she looks as though she has just been running through fields, with her tangled curls and bright face. In fact, Gotch painted Ruby Bone (who was about two) in response to a bet that he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – paint a red-head in red clothes (the Art Fund give more information on this here).

Although Gotch is not a particularly prominent painter, his work is easily recognisable. From the glorious, celestial, if somewhat uncanny children (most famously, The Child Enthroned) to his more Gothic imaginings (such as Death the Bride), his work demonstrates how different schools of art may collide and produce something entirely unexpected and often quite thrilling.



Elgar at the Lunatic Asylum

Edward_ElgarOne of my research interests is in Victorian lunatic asylums and the treatment their patients received (and I’m editing a bookInsanity and the Lunatic Asylum in the Nineteenth Century which will be published in December 2014). I’ve also been researching the origins of Barnsley Hall Asylum, in Bromsgrove, which was knocked down in 1996, so I was excited to discover that this year’s Elgar Society Lecture was on Edward Elgar and the Powick Lunatic Asylum in Worcester.

In 1879 the young Elgar took up a post as bandmaster at the asylum, where he worked for 5 years. He was only 21 when he began, and among other work he composed a series of pieces for the asylum orchestra to perform. The Ken Russell film about Elgar (1962) is available in its entirety on Youtube, and haelgar-powick-asylum-barry-collett-1393934391-old-article-0s a sequence on Elgar’s time at Powick, including a performance of one of the asylum compositions. When Powick closed in 1988, the music was performed there one last time, as well as being recorded. In 2008 the score was published, and last year a new professional recording with members of the CBSO was produced; this was well-reviewed and reached number 8 in the classical charts (I own a copy and have very much enjoyed it).

The lecture was given by Barry Collett, a conductor whose research led him to find Elgar’s Powick Asylum music, neglected in a corner in books labelled ‘Property of the Powick Hospital’, and to conduct its first performances in over a century; and Andew Lyle, who researched and eventually published the scores. Though both were clear that these aren’t ‘lost masterpieces’, the music is cheerful, ‘charming’, appropriate for the setting – but most of all, it demonstrates the composer at work, learning his craft – how to write, how to manage an orchestra, how to allow the instruments to perform to the highest level, and how to write music which was appropriate to a particular setting yet with a wider appeal. The lecture Powick asylumhelpfully illuminated aspects of the music which appear in later, better known works by Elgar and demonstrate how valuable early compositions may be, just as the ‘juvenilia’ of writers is often a mine of gems which point to their later work.

The asylum band was composed of staff, not inmates, and the range of instruments played by the staff is impressive. The Medical Superintendent of Powick, James Sherlock, was sympathetic to music as a form of therapy – very advanced for the time – so one wonders if he deliberately appointed musical staff! He bought instruments for the staff, whose skill was considerable judging by Elgar’s music written for them, and arranged musical instruction on two nights a week. His view was that ‘No other recreation has such a curative effect’. Elgar rehearsed the orchestra and conducted 220px-Collett' for Friday afternoon dances for the patients to attend, as well as writing popular dances for them, such as the polka and the quadrille. Concerts were also held, again conducted by Elgar, and staff who contributed to the amusement of patients in these ways received a financial reward. No matter what the condition of the patients, the ability to enjoy and benefit from listening to music remained, an idea that is perhaps much more common today. Later in life, though, Elgar (who liked to shock people by referring to ‘when I was at the lunatic asylum’), said ‘I fear my music did little to alleviate the condition of the inmates’ – but when listening to the Powick Asylum music, I can’t help but think it must at least have provide a little cheer for them.

The Lunatics Ball

The Lunatics Ball