Visiting Harvington Hall

imagesI have a bit of an obsession with priest holes, originating with childhood visits to Chenies Manor in Buckinghamshire (resulting in several stories about the place, written before I was ten, and inspiring me to read Alison Uttley’s A Traveller In Time, a wonderful book for children). So I was very excited to visit Harvington Hall, which apparently has more priest holes than anywhere else, and is not far from where I live. It’s a beautiful Elizabethan moated manor house, with some Georgian additions (and it serves amazing cake in its tea-shop). Harvington is one of several Worcestershire and Warwickshire houses to have hidden Catholic priests at a time when to be a Catholic was extremely dangerous in England; others include Baddesley Clinton and Coughton Court. (Note: it’s extremely difficult to explain to a three-year-old why priests had to hide!) These days, Harvington is a beautiful, peaceful place, but the restored house, now owned by the Archdiocese of Birmingham, is well set up to explain its turbulent history. The rooms are full of rpriest holeeminders of the terrors of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century when Catholicism was seen as a threat to the throne and to national security. Life-size figures hide in priest holes, or sit alone in the corner of a dark room writing (and making me jump!) A recording in one room brings to life the reality of night-time raids on the houses of suspected Catholics, where capture would mean torture and death. The priest holes are ingenious, often tiny and certainly uncomfortable to those who might have had to occupy them for days at a time; several were designed by Nicholas Owen, ‘the master-builder of hides’, and one uses a similar approach to that of the Colditz escapees.

However, the house is also set up as a working Elizabethan home, with Harvington-Hall-knot-gardenkitchens, dining tables, a malt house and a beautiful knot garden, as well as the site of an Elizabethan bowling lawn. There are also some remarkable wall-paintings, which have been closely analysed, including the ‘Nine Worthies’, and, in a chapel, drops of water and blood representing the Passion. There are two chapels contained in the house, and one, a Georgian addition, in the grounds, which used to be a school-house. In fact the buildings were used as a school for wartime evacuees, but prior to this the house was neglected and in a dangerous state of disrepair, stripped of much of its decoration which was installed in other houses (including Coughton Court).

The focus isn’t only on its past as a haven for priests, then, but this is certainly the driving narrative of the building now. Small children love secret passages and tiny hideaways, but it’s also a reminder of how shockingly and fatally divisive religious difference can be, something which was brought home to me when I was trying to explain to my son why it was once dangerous to be Catholic. Yet in the continuing history of the house, its domesticity and restoration, it also indicates how times move on and, perhaps, without such poignant reminders, we might forget such things. Sometimes old buildings are themselves a memorial to the past.


Shakespeare’s ancestors and Christopher Wren

I’ve never given much thought to Shakespeare’s family, but I’m currently staying at Wroxall Abbey in Warwickshire (on a ‘writing retreat’ focusing on teaching), and have found an unexpected history to the place. I knew that the building the hotel occupies was a Victorian Gothic building (which is beautiful) which has a history as a residence and then a girls’ school before it became a hotel, but it turns out that the Abbey from which the building takes its name was founded in 1141 on the site, and ruins (and I do love ruins) of the medieval Lady Chapel are on the site. Relatives of Shakespeare (and after all, we’re not far from Stratford here) were involved in the running of the Abbey: in 1501 Isabella Shakespeare was Prioress, and in 1524 Joan Shakespeare was Sub-Prioress. Later, in the 1530s, Richard Shakespeare, grandfather of William, was Bailiff of the Church. We know that Shakespeare was born and raised in the Anglican Church (as was usual at the time) but I wonder what he knew about his family at Wroxall? It’s interesting to speculate if the Abbess in The Comedy of Errors might owe anything to his forebears.

With the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the house became a private estate, with an Elizabethan manor which was home to the High Sheriff of Warwickshire (and continued to be the home of Sheriffs, including Wren’s grandson).





 The estate later became the home of the architect Sir Christopher Wren, in 1713, and his family are buried in the churchyard. The church is now known as Wren’s Cathedral. However, the house in which Wren lived is no longer standing; when the Dugdale family bought the estate in 1861, they demolished it in favour of a more fashionable Victorian Gothic mansion. The grounds are amazing, though, and give a glimpse of what Wren might have enjoyed here in their green open spaces, as well as the picturesque ruins.

The Dickens Discovery and why it matters

220px-Alltheyearround_1891Over the last couple of weeks, my social media feeds have been overflowing with excitement about the ‘Dickens Discovery’. However, I realise this isn’t perhaps as important to everyone else as it is to me and my colleagues, so although I haven’t really got anything new to add, I wanted to comment on why it is so exciting.

What happened is well-described here in the Guardian. In a nutshell, Dr Jeremy Parrott, an antiquarian bookseller and Dickens scholar, bought a 20-volume set of All the Year Round, the journal which Dickens edited (or ‘conducted’, as he preferred to say) for ten years up to his death. It seemed like a particularly beautiful set, but when he opened it, there were names written in the margins by the articles. Now, the contributors were all anonymous, so although it is known who some of the contributors are, we can only guess who wrote what. But in these volumes, every article was attributed in pencil; and when one was attributed to Dickens himself, it was with his own signature. It transpires that this was Dickens’ own set, in which he noted the contributors in annotations.

If you’re not reeling with excitement by now (like me – though I did write my MA dissertation on Dickens’ editorial policy) All_the_year_roundthen here is why this is so important:

1. We know more about Dickens as editor, now – about whose writing he published, and the decisions he made, and that, for example, he published work by his family.

2. It’s enlightening about the contributors: pieces previously attributed to Wilkie Collins, for example, turn out not to be by him at all, while other pieces which are by him add to the extant works by Collins. This is huge, impacting on our perceptions of the work of a range of writers which also includes Dickens himself, Elizabeth Gaskell, Lewis Carroll, Eliza Linton (the first professional female journalist) and Fanny Trollope. This is HUGE!

3. Though Dickens has been considered something of a misogynist (perhaps partly because of his scathing comments about working with Mrs Gaskell, despite his respect for her work) but it’s estimated that around 40% of the contributions are by women. This adds to modern views on gender and writing.

4. It shows that what we know, or think we know, isn’t set in stone, and reminds us not to be smug or complacent. Literary history can still surprise us, and prove us wrong. It also – most excitingly – gives us hope that there might be other thrilling discoveries out there to be made, any day now!

5. All of the above means that there is now new work to be done on Dickens and his journals – new angles to be considered, new contributors to be researched, etc.

CDYou can read Dickens’ journals online here. The Dickens Blog also has more information. Dr Parrott will be publishing an article in the Victorian Periodicals Review about his discovery. The excitement of the discovery is captured well in an interview with Dr Parrott on Radio 4’s Front Row – the podcast is available here.

A Church and a Chapel and a half

St Petrock

St Petrock

A sign which says ‘Ancient Church’ is irresistible to me. You never know what you might find off the beaten track, and sometimes the most beautiful places are the most hidden. On holiday in Devon, I followed one such sign, near the National Trust property Arlington Court in Parracombe, to look at the Church of St Petrock. Like a number of other churches in Devon and Cornwall, this one takes its name from the Cornish saint, a prince originally from Wales who is reported to have performed many miracles. The church is in a beautiful position with views overlooking the hills and valleys of the land, and with an old churchyard which I P1000818explored with my son (who is also partial to a nice graveyard). The church is reputed to have been built by William de Falaise in the eleventh century (he was a relative of William the Conqueror), though with later additions. In its secluded spot the church retains an atmosphere of the ancient, with much of it both inside and out being fairly plain. There is a wonderful painted screen, however, depicting the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed alongside the Hanoverian royal arms.

The guidebook tells me that the interior has not been altered in any way for two hundred years, and thus ‘shows the fashion in church furnishing that prevailed in a simple village church in the late eighteenth century’, complete with high box pews for keeping out the drafts, and plain sixteenth century benches. There is something refreshingly simple about it, as though plainly dressed, devout rural worshippers might solemnly file in at P1000827any moment. Fascinatingly, two old cottages nearby represent what is left of the church ale house, which brewed refreshments for the congregation. And as a final touch to bring the scene to life, it seems that ‘one pew has a piece cut out to allow room for the bow of a bass viol. St Petrock’s is believed to have been the last church in Devon in which the singing was accompanied by a band of musicians.’ The church was nearly pulled down in 1879, but John Ruskin defended it and offered a donation for a new church to be built elsewhere. Though the church is no longer in use, now looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust, it still somehow contains echoes of faith, and is, perhaps surprisingly (or perhaps not) one of the most visited churches in the country.ilfracombe

The chapel I visited was St Nicholas Chapel in Ilfracombe, on a hill above the harbour. Overlooking Damien Hirst’s ‘gigantic and arrestingly hideous Verity‘ (according to the Guardian, and I can’t say I like the sculpture either), there is something of deep peace about the little chapel overlooking the sea, beset – on the day I visited – by high wind and heavy rain. Built in 1321, it has also served as a lighthouse for much of its life (and is still a working lighthouse) – a nice metaphor for its early purpose as a beacon of hope for workers in the harbour. With the dissolution of the Chapelmonasteries it was no longer a chapel, and has been used as a reading room and a laundry, and in the mid-nineteenth century was home to a lighthouse keeper and his fourteen children. Now maintained by the Rotary Club, it contains a few pieces of furniture which recall this domestic dwelling, though services  are still occasionally held at the tiny altar. It’s a steep climb, but a tiny gem.

The half mentioned in the title refers to the ruins of St Michael’s chapel in Braunton. This is a sixteenth century chapel high up on a hill, which we could see from our holiday home, and I spent the first few days here planning a trip to explore it. Its position made it a perfect place to watch the seas and pray for sailors. Legend has it that the church was demolished every night by the devil, so eventually it was abandoned and the church of St Brannock was built in a more accessible spot in the village. We tried very hard, climbing several steep hills with a P1000844three year old, but ultimately were defeated by padlocked gates and electric fences, so although we saw some lovely views we never got to the chapel.

While on holiday, I’m reading Alexandra Harris’s marvellous Romantic Moderns, which reminds me that John Betjeman urged radio listeners in the 1930s to see churches as ‘not backwaters, but “strongholds”. … They had for centuries been the focal point of village culture. This was where English music had flourished; it was also the village art gallery with a permanent collection of extraordinary richness, from wall paintings and ceiling bosses to stained-glass windows and memorial sculpture.’ (Harris, 193)

Book Review: The Children Act

ChildrenAct_VintageAs the review of this book in the Guardian points out, Ian McEwan is fascinated by roles and institutions of authority, and how the playing of such a role affects his protagonists. In The Children Act, (which is a novella, really – I read it in an evening) we are invited to consider the intricacies of the life of a high court judge, both professional and personal. Fiona Maye is in her fifties, a distinctly-delineated character whose devotion to her work is only paralleled by her lack-lustre marriage to Jack, who wants to have an affair. Specialising in family law and with a history of difficult cases, she is haunted by the children who might have suffered from her decisions, and overwhelmed by the need to make the ‘right’ decision in the interests of children – whatever ‘right’ is. And this is the central question of the book: who gets to decide? Who knows what ‘right’ is? And ‘right’ in what sense?

The law collides with faith in Fiona’s next case, where a Jehovah’s Witness boy refuses a blood transfusion which will save his life. After meeting him, talking to him and agonising over her decision, she concludes that he is not old enough to make this decision, perhaps being unduly pressured by his family and church. I won’t spoil the novel by detailing what happens next, but the novel asks, ultimately, serious questions about what is important in life: relationships, art, career, faith? Are they reliable enough the build a life around? What happens whenMcEwan you lose one of the pillars which holds up your life? (Perhaps this is why, bizarrely, Amazon has categorised the book as ‘spiritual fiction’!) This uncertainty and questioning is played out against a well-researched background framework of topical legal issues (faith, the protection of children, the 1989 Children Act, etc).

It’s a novel with subtle shades as well as thumping great questions about life, but in some ways it feels flimsy: I wanted more – more detail, more of the characters, a more drawn-out plot. Nonetheless, it’s well worth reading for its often compelling prose, and for another, more unusual reason: in its unexpected exploration of psychology, considering what we value and how society constructs and reconstructs those values, it reminds me very much of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus. Here, a child psychologist, Dysart, is dealing with a troubled young man, Alan, and takes on Alan’s struggles himself, using the boy’s issues to explore – or repress – his own problems. Dysart concludes in many ways equusthat the freedom Alan has in expressing himself mean that, though psychologically disturbed, Alan is somehow happier – freer of society, able to pursue something primitive and wild which means he is somehow more alive than anyone else. In many ways, this aspect and the trajectory of the relationship between authority-figure and troubled child is parallel in the two texts, though of the two, Equus is the more lingering, perhaps because of the more extreme images it provides on stage and even on the page. McEwan’s version is more restrained – no stabbing of horses’ eyes here – but almost more horrific, when life and death, love and faith are at stake.

Love is Enough: William Morris and Andy Warhol

6257_lrYes, I thought this was an odd combination at first. Still, the appearance of the Holy Grail tapestries alone was enough to persuade me to visit the Love is Enough exhibition at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. And, in fact, I found it a more convincing juxtaposition than I’d expected. I quite like surprising combinations of things, and these two artists, a century apart, were, as the exhibition guide explains, both essential to modern art and culture, the most influential artists of their times, and with some surprising similarities in their approaches, at least. Both were innovative, commercially-engaged, with successful businesses; both believed in art for the masses and in bringing art into everyday life; Warhol is quoted as saying that an artwork or product must be available to all, which distinctly echoes Morris. Moreover, both were overtly political, as well as interested in creating iconic images, if very different ones. The exhibition opens with the amazing combination of Warhol’s image of Joan Collins and Rossetti’s La Donna della Finestra on William Morris’s Blackthorn paper – and the iconic beauties, so different, seemed to fit well together, oddly enough.1980M60

A section entitled ‘Camelot’ brings together the Grail tapestries produced by Morris & Co, which are, as I expected, stunning (this isn’t the first time I’ve seen some of them but they seem to offer something new every time) with Warhol’s 1960s America and images of the Kennedys and Marilyn Monroe. The Grail tapestries depict scenes from King Arthur’s court at Camelot, while of course Camelot is also used to refer to the presidency of JFK. Both artists were, of course, obsessed with mythology and beautiful (doomed) people (medieval, in Morris’s case; Hollywood, in Warhol’s) and recreated it endlessly in their work – both, however, from a position as outsiders looking in – however important their work seems now, and however crucial to the culture of the period, their status as excluded from the places they idolised made them significant observers. The ways in which we re1907M129make our dreams is perhaps a subject of the exhibition, and the contrast between the works is fascinating – the depth in the tapestries when compared with the perfect flatness of Warhol’s work, for example. The exhibition notes carefully point out that Warhol was in many ways a true devotee of Hollywood, not merely pointing out the ironic possibilities of reproducible images but genuinely paying homage to those he saw as beautiful or deserving.

Much is made of the men’s political leanings, as utopian socialists who wished to see a future filled with art and equality (sounds good to me!) in which beauty took priority over almost everything. Of course this necessarily raises questions about the availability of art, and both men focused on designs which were easily and frequently reproduced, allowing every home to have some form of art in it; of course, this is also a commercially brilliant scheme! Both had businesses – Morris & Co and The Factory – to produce and promote their work; Morris also wrote socialist pamphlets, some of which are on display here, while Warhol founded Interview magazine to provide a mouthpiece for himself and Warhol_Tapestry_lrthose of similar views.

The theory of the exhibition, then, is convincing (to me, anyway). But much, much more important is that the large, open
space central to the exhibition, with the Grail tapestries, a Marilyn Monroe tapestry and the Kennedy’s, is breathtaking. Somehow bringing the work of the two men together gives it even more relevance and appeal (though I confess I certainly still prefer Morris). The tapestries tell a story, of a doomed quest for the Grail, from its beginning in a hall with King Arthur to the finding of the Grail by Sir Galahad. In fact, there is so much in these Boy with flowerstapestries: they tell a story, and it includes love, death, fear, failure, fighting, betrayal, and dinner. One might argue the same is true in the echoes conjured up by Marilyn and the Kennedys.

The final section, entitled ‘Flower Power’, contains what you’d expect: a lot of Morris wallpaper – all beautiful, of course, and several printing blocks too, alongside some flower designs by Warhol, which are as much of their time – and as timeless – as Morris’s are. Printing blocks remind us of the interest in reproducibility that both men sustained. Some of the images are almost like a psychedelic version of Morris’s work; though no mention is made of whether Warhol was interested in Morris’s work, I can’t help but think he must at least have known of him. The exhibition makes Morris seem somehow more modern, and Warhol more traditional, than one might expect.

cropped-356559.jpgThe title of the exhibition is taken from one of William Morris’s poems – one which was read at my wedding, in fact. It suggests that both artists shared an intense love of art, people, and the world around them.

LOVE is enough: though the World be a-waning,

And the woods have no voice but the voice of complaining,

Though the sky be too dark for dim eyes to discover

The gold-cups and daisies fair blooming thereunder,

Though the hills be held shadows, and the sea a dark wonder,

And this day draw a veil over all deeds pass’d over,

Yet their hands shall not tremble, their feet shall not falter;

The void shall not weary, the fear shall not alter

These lips and these eyes of the loved and the lover.