Saturday, 20 August 2016

"Divinest creature, Astrea's daughter" *

Very soon the sign of Virgo takes over from Leo in the zodiac, and hints of incipient autumn make our summer pleasures keener, just as they did six hundred years ago -- for the harvesters as well as the elegant ladies and the lords in their straw hats, before the Chateau d'Estampes. 

August, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c.1412-16

The constellation of Virgo, according to  Greek myth, was created when Astrea, virgin goddess of the Golden Age, left the sinful earth for the heavens.   She is also linked with the goddess Ceres and harvest-time.

Here Virgo is portrayed by astronomer Johannes Hevelius in his Uranographia of 1690, her left hand holding its sheaf of corn.

In literature Astrea is seen to preside over a new Golden Age of Justice, symbolically representing Queen Elizabeth I in Spenser's  Faerie Queene, and similarly in Dryden's poem Astrea Redux, celebrating the return of Charles II in 1660.    In seventeenth century France, she was the heroine of Honore' d'Urfe's pastoral romance, L'Astree,  a best seller for many decades; her lover, the shepherd Celadon, dressed in grey-green, and gave his name to this colour in Europe.   The word celadon is now synonymous with Song dynasty porcelains.

Bowl with lid, Longquan ware; Song Dynasty **

* Shakespeare,  Henry VI Pt.1, Act I. vi, of Joan of Arc.
**  Chinese Ceramics , Dr. F. Lili, Chinese Intercontinental Press 

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Poetry, Pots, and a Parson

North Devon is known for its large honey-coloured Harvest Jugs, particularly the boldly decorated, signed and dated ones from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The patterns and the inscriptions were widely copied and imitated, and inspire potters today.

Lead glazed slipware harvest jug, decorated with sgraffito, 1703 
© Fitzwilliam Museum

"now i am com for to Supply your workmen
when in harvist dry they do labor hard and sweat
good drink is better far than meat; in wintertime when it is coold
i Likewise then good drink can hold: booth seasons doe the same require,
and most men doe good drink desire"

These West Country harvest jugs are often decorated with tulips and other flowers, birds, unicorns, and, reflecting their coastal origins, ships, compasses, suns and mermaids.  There were thriving potteries in Barnstaple and Bideford, where the Burton Museum & Gallery has a magnificent collection of plain and fancy pots,  bequeathed by R.J.Lloyd.

Here are some more examples:

John Phillips, Bideford, 1780  © Trustees of the British Museum

"When I was in my native Place I was a lump of Clay
and Diged was out of the Earth and Brought from thence a Way,
but now I am a Jugg became by Potter's Art and Skiel
and now your Servant am Become and carry alle I will."

This one is much cruder, although the handle join is scrolled,  and its verse is more like a motto:

Slipware jug,  © Burton Museum, Bideford

"As A ring is round & hath no End
So is my Love Unto my Friend"

Others celebrate Ceres, Goddess of the harvest*, or the Barley Mow:

"harvest is come, all busy now
in making of the Barley mow
if you the Barley now neglect
you cannot then Good Ale Expect"
(signed T. Jones 1792)

Twentieth century and contemporary potters still create Harvest jugs in the traditional  North Devon style, often choosing inscriptions referring to their craft;  this verse was Michael Cardew's choice, in 1925:

"Despise me not because I'm made of clay -
But make me welcome when I come this way-
My belly fill with good strong punch (or beer) -
& I will make you merry all the year."

The inscriptions frequently are placed underneath the handle, which enlivens the simple flower pattern in this one below:

Devon Harvest Jug from Buckland Abbey, signed Abel Symons 1813
© National Trust/Lynda Aiano

Its inscription is the most interesting part of this grand jug, as it commemorates an old West Country ritual, "Crying the Neck".

"The Potter fashioned me complete, as plainly doth appear
for to supply the harvest men with good strong English beer.
Drink round my jolly reapers and when the corn is cut
we'll have the other jug - and cry A Neck A Neck."

As the last sheaf is cut (by hand) the reaper holds it aloft and cries " I 'ave un, I 'ave un". His fellows shout "What 'ave ee? What 'ave ee?" to which he replies "a Neck, a Neck" and  "Hurrah for the Neck! Hurrah!"  This age-old pagan custom was revived by the Old Cornwall Society (and see,  but the churches' Harvest Festival tradition was begun in 1843, by the eccentric Parson Robert Hawker of Morwenstow, North Cornwall.

A poet, antiquarian (and opium smoker?), he built himself a tiny bothy (National Trust's smallest property), reached by a track along the cliff edge, where he could write and watch for ships in danger from the precipitous rocks at Hartland Point.

Hawker's driftwood hut © H. Bolton

 He rescued many seamen, and others are buried in the graveyard of his church of St John & St. Morwenna beside the vicarage at Morwenstow. It is worth exploring for its evocative headstones for the drowned sailors.  The Museum of Wrecks at Hartland Quay records the dangers of this coast, including an ill-fated aeroplane.

Hartland coastline  © H. Spurway

Parson Robert Hawker is best known for the Trelawney anthem,  --
"And shall Trelawney live? Or shall Trelawney die?  
Here's twenty thousand Cornishmen shall know the reason why!" --
which he published anonymously in 1825 as The Song of the Western Men, basing it on old Cornish ballads for a new literary audience. 

This is why the harvest jugs with inscriptions have so much more appeal for me, with their makers' initials and dates;  the earlier ones in particular are recording West Country oral history for us with all their craftsmen's skill.  This fine North Devon jug below is boldly decorated and glazed, but lacks the extra pleasure of these country rhymes saved by the potters.

 Harvest Jug, Barnstaple or Bideford, 1764 © V&A Museum

* see wikimedia for copyrights.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Felicity Aylieff, potter

I am fortunate enough to live surrounded by books and beautiful paintings and rarely covet material things, except perhaps a book or painting missed -  a Doves Press Areopagitica, a drawing at the RA Summer Exhibition -- which I couldn't really afford anyway.  But when I saw photos of this porcelain vase, yes, I thought, that I would love to possess.   But until I saw this image, I had not realised just how large it was.

Still Life with Three Chinese Vases
© the Artist (at Adrian Sassoon)

It was made by Felicity Aylieff , Senior Ceramics Tutor at the Royal College of Art during a residency at the Jingdezhen Experimental Factory in China, where she was working on very large scale porcelains decorated in the traditional hand-painted soft colour 'fencai' enamels. It stands some five feet high (and costs as much as a mid-range car). 

And where could I put it anyway to display it at its best and without risk of damage?  So now, as well as enjoying the clarity of colour, the subtle detailed patterns with hints of Japanese angularity, and its unexpected scale, I can also ponder what sort of an imaginary space would I choose, in which to walk around it, touch it and marvel.  

© Felicity Aylieff, potter

Friday, 5 August 2016

Did Shakespeare dine out? and other pressing questions.

All the best writings on Shakespeare - whether fact or fiction, articles, skits or imaginative recreations - should send you back to the text.  I have been reading novelist Angela Thirkell lately, and her light-hearted piece in the Cornhill Magazine from 1928*  certainly had me turning the pages of his plays.

She argues that from evidence in several plays, it is clear that Shakespeare did not dine in the best circles, as he shows little understanding of the proper way to entertain.  For example, the Capulets clearly cannot manage their servants - "We shall be much unfurnished for this time" (Act IV, sc.2), Timon of Athens keeps insulting his dinner guests, "trencher  friends"(Act III. sc. 6), and in Cymbeline (Act I, sc, 4),  Philario in Rome has no understanding of inviting compatible acquaintances, with two guests also hampered by language barriers.

In Macbeth, the noble guests politely ignore "the peculiar remarks of their host (never shake thy gory locks..., Act III sc. 4) and the obvious temper of their hostess", while in Hamlet  (Act III sc.2) the host Claudius rushes out shouting unintelligibly in the middle of the after-dinner entertainment.  Hamlet himself has rudely chattered all the way through the play, as Ophelia remarks: "You are a good chorus my lord".
As Angela Thirkell says, "Now can we suppose that any of Shakespeare's patrons would have given such outrageously improbable parties?"

Polite Tudor dining:  William Brooke, Lord Cobham and his family, 1567 
Longleat House Collection

It is the improbable "Ceremonial Boiling of the Potato" Party planned by Raleigh for Queen Elizabeth I and her court, which is one of the running jokes in No Bed for Bacon.  This comic novel by Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon was a best-seller in 1941, and shares many popular jokes about Shakespeare with the Universal film of 1998,  Shakespeare in Love. 

Francis Bacon as Lord Chancellor, 1617 

In No Bed for Bacon -- which might have influenced Tom Stoppard, but was unknown (except by osmosis?) to the original writer of Shakespeare in Love, Marc Norman --  the stage-struck heroine Lady Viola falls in love with the Bard, with the rivalry of Henslowe and Burbage and their theatre companies as backdrop.

Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe in the Universal  film

 Martin Clunes as Burbage in the Universal film

Shakespeare, however, is clearly only in love with himself : "a melancholy figure sat tracing its signature on a pad.  Shakesper, Shakespere, Shekspar.  He was always hoping that one of these days he would come to a firm decision upon which of them he liked the best."  
Still more precious is his current work-in-progress Lov's Labor Wunne.  He even risks his life to retrieve its title page (all he has yet written) from the flames of the Globe Theatre.  Writing another new play for a Royal Performance on 6th January, "'Call it what you will",  he mocks interfering Sir Francis Bacon, identifiable to all in the figure of Malvolio.
But Bacon plans his revenge:   "He would devise some dark revenge, something deep and literary to obscure Will's name to all posterity.  Bacon should deface the name of Shakespeare!  But how?  He concentrated."

This wonderful Elizabethan burlesque also features Raleigh, ordering ever more splendid but accident-prone cloaks for his 'Ceremonial Boiling of the Potato' before the Queen,  her sea-dog Drake's drunken analysis of the Armada, and poor Francis Bacon's abortive campaign to obtain a genuine Royal Progress bed.  Where has it gone: Shakespeare has queue jumped and sent Bacon's bed to Anne Hathaway, of course.

*included in Christmas at High Risings © the Estate of Angela Thirkell, Virago Publications 2013.

Monday, 1 August 2016

August: Royal Wilding to Redstreak, and Somerset harvests

The Haymakers (La Recolte du Foins)  Julien Dupre  1881

"Back in 1851, the census listed more than seventy farms in the parish, most of them less than fifty acres in area.  These were, as you might expect from this lush, wet area, mainly dairy farms producing milk, butter and cheese; although sheep, pigs and poultry were also kept in good numbers.  These animals - and the meat they produced -  were fuelled by the main crop of the parish: hay.  Even in the 1950s haymaking was still a common sight, and one villager recalls that any ricks left untouched the following spring  would be colonised by nesting birds.  Today, it's almost all silage.

The other major crop was, of course, apples; still used to make Somerset's traditional drink, cider.  Cider-making dates back at least to the thirteenth century (and probably far longer).  The boom time for planting orchards was the second half of the seventeenth century and the early years of the eighteenth. In those days, cider was mainly for drinking at home rather than for commercial sale, using long-forgotten varieties of apple with wonderfully evocative names:  Royal Wilding, Flood-Hatch, Woodcock, Red-Hedge Pip, Old Jeffrey and Redstreak.  Odd clumps of cider-apple trees still grow in gardens all over the parish, including my own.  Their fruit is pale, bitter and, unfortunately, completely inedible."

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds  Stephen Moss

And here are some rather more genteel Haymakers by George Stubbs (1785)  on view at Tate Britain.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Leonine stories

Persian Astrological illustration for Leo,  gouache, c. 1800s. 
(from the Wellcome Library Images ) 

 This is the time when the constellation of Leo is in the ascendent.  There are many examples of the kingly Lion as a symbol from myth and legend, from the lion-killing hero in the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Old Testament's  Samson and David, or the Greek Hercules, all often shown wearing a lion skin.  Gentler heroes are St. Jerome, who befriended a lion by removing a thorn from its paw, a story taken from the classics and reimagined by G. B. Shaw in Androcles and the Lion,  and of course, the fourth Gospel-maker, St. Mark and his winged lion, historically associated with Venice. 

But for my Lion illustration I have gone back to the Babylonian myth of the tragic lovers, a tale popular in the  later Renaissance: 
"In such a night  
Did Thisbe fearfully overtrip the dew, 
And saw the lion's shadow ere himself, 
And ran dismayed away."  (Merchant of Venice  Act V)

Pyramus and Thisbe, maiolica plate from Urbino, c. 1550s  © Fitzwilliam Museum

As Ovid recounts, the eloping lovers are due to meet at Ninus' fountain outside Nineveh, but Thisbe, arriving first, is frightened by a bloody-mouthed lion and flees, dropping her cloak. Pyramus arrives, sees the lion mauling Thisbe's bloodstained cloak, and, most true lover, falls on his sword.   Here we see Thisbe returning and desperately following  Pyramus' example, watched by Cupid.

Not the finest rendering in maiolica - a very cluttered image with all the city backdrop encroaching.  The painter (or his customers) obviously liked scenes of impalement, but the lion has not got Thisbe's bloodstained cloak in its mouth, in fact Thisbe still seems to have a cloak around her; nevertheless the painter has captured the popular tragedy with dramatic 3D effect.  According to Ovid, a mulberry tree grew beside the fountain and, drenched in the lovers' blood, its white berries were ever after deep purple.

There are other finer maiolica examples in e.g. the Wallace Collection, and this popular story appears in paintings, mosaics, on Venetian glassware and French tapestry, although you sometimes have to look hard to spot the deadly lion.

I could not resist this Footnote:  a fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli, c. 1425, from Montefalco, Italy.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

"Versailles, Versailles!"

I watched some of the BBC' s  Versailles last night, mainly to check out the furniture (no euphemism there), and I was distracted by imagining how Sid James and better still, Kenneth Williams, would have livened up the stilted dialogue.  As for the set furnishings, I  saw the Palace's beautiful painted panelling and some period cabinets, but nothing as eye-catching as this one I saw at the V&A Museum recently.

Ivory cabinet and stand, 1661-65    Pierre Gole   © V&A Museum

This exquisite display cabinet was made by Pierre Gole, cabinet maker to Louis XIV, for Philippe, duc d'Orleans and his English wife, Henriette-Anne (Charles II's favourite sister, Minette).

Unusually, it is all veneered in ivory with a delicate inlaid floral pattern.  Gole has used many materials to achieve the colours, including several exotic woods, ebony, horn, bone (stained green for the leaves)  and tortoise shell, along with brass mounts.  More tiny drawers are hidden behind the central door panel.  
The amazing craftsmanship of this piece means that it would never be boring.