Friday, 23 June 2017

"Hay and Ice" : June weather cycles (and the correct way to scythe)

The Haymakers  George Stubbs 1785  © Tate Britain

"It froze hard last night;  I went out for a moment to look at my haymakers, and was starved.  The contents of an English June are hay and ice, orange flowers and rheumatism.  I am now cowering over the fire."   This was Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill on 14th June, 1791.   He also recorded droughts and inundations: 

 "11th June: We have had an extraordinary drought, no grass, no leaves, no flowers; not a white rose for the festival of yesterday!  About four arrived such a flood, that we could not see out of the windows: the whole lawn was a lake, though situated on so high an Ararat…. You never saw such a desolation.  …It never came into my head before, that a rainbow-office for insuring against water might be very necessary." (Twickenham 1775)

Strawberry Hill, Twickenham     Paul Sandby

Others recorded June temperatures in the 80s (Fahrenheit): thus Walpole's poet friend Thomas Gray: "June 3rd Wind S.S.E.  Thermometer at 84 (the highest I ever saw it): it was at Noon. Since which till last week we had hot dry weather.  Now it rains like mad."  (Cambridgeshire, 1760)

And Gilbert White of Selborne: "June 22nd.  Fruit-walls in the sun are so hot I cannot bear my hand on them.  Brother Thomas's thermometer was 89 on an east wall in the afternoon.  Much damage was done and some people were killed by lightning on this sultry day."  (Hampshire, 1790)

Daniel Fahrenheit and his thermometer  (Wikimedia)

Mercurial Samuel Pepys reacted to a late June heatwave: "June 28th: Up; and this day put on a half-shirt first this summer, it being very hot; and yet so ill-tempered I am grown that I am afeard I shall ketch cold, while all the world is ready to melt away."   (London, 1664)

Erratic weather particularly threatened the hay and other essential fodder crops.

James Tyrrell reported frosts and drought to his friend John Locke, a regular weather observer.
"June 24th:...  alas for news all that we talk of here is of the rain and are still praying for more,….I hear at Oxford, that the Drought hath bin so great about Paris……for the honour of our Northern Climate, there hath been seen severall times this month, ice of the thickness of half a Crowne…   I am hayning* my ground againe as if it were but Lady day haveing almost no hay yet: but however I hope I shall be able to bid the horse, as well as the Master welcome…" . ( Shotover, Oxford 1681)  Correspondence, ed. E.S. De Beer

" June 21st:  We now have frosty mornings, and so cold a wind, that even at high noon we have been obliged to break off our walk in the southern side of the garden, and seek shelter, I in the greenhouse, Mrs Unwin by the fireside.  Haymaking begins here tomorrow."  (William Cowper, Buckinghamshire 1784)

Sainfoin (Fr. holy hay)  Onobrychis viciaefolia  (Wikimedia)

"June 9th: Everything seemed parched and dried up by the two months drought except some brilliant patches of the crimson sanfoin which lighted up the white hot downs and burning Plain. " (Frances Kilvert, Wiltshire  1874)

And the same the previous year: "July 22nd: Today the heat was excessive and as I sat reading under the lime I pitied the poor haymakers toiling in the burning Common where it seemed to be raining fire." (Frances Kilvert, Wiltshire, 1873)

What would these observers have thought of  meteorologist Eduard Bruckner's 35-year weather cycles of alternate periods of warm dry and cold damp weather?   Readers of Cassell's Magazine in June 1899 (particularly umbrella-makers) were reassured that the twentieth century would begin with the 17 year period due of rainy weather.

But if you are planning to make hay while the sun shines this summer, here is how to do it:

"July 24th:  Robert says the first grass from the scythe is the swathe, then comes the strow (tedding),
then rowing, then the footcocks, then breaking, then the hubrows, which are gathered into hubs, then sometimes another break and turning, then rickles, the biggest of all the cocks, which are run together into placks, the shapeless heap from which the hay is carted."  (Gerrard Manley Hopkins, Lancashire 1871)

Haymaking  Alfred Glendening  1898  ©Tate Britain 

* Haining:  fencing grass to protect  from cattle.
Most of these quotations are from Geoffrey Grigson's anthology "The English Year"

Friday, 16 June 2017

A poem for June voters?

Instructions, apply to the affected parts as required:

"Fish (fly replete in depth of June,
Dawdling away their watery noon)
Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,
Each fishy secret hope or fear.
Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond;
But is there anything Beyond?
This life cannot be All, they swear,
For how unpleasant if it were!
One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;
And, sure, the reverent eye must see
A Purpose in Liquidity.
We darkly know, by Faith we cry,
The future is not Wholly Dry.
Mud unto mud! -- Death eddies near --
Not here the appointed End, not here!
But somewhere, beyond Space and Time
Is wetter water, slimier slime!
And there (they trust) there swimmeth One
Who swam ere rivers were begun,
Immense, of fishy form and mind,
Squamous, omnipotent, and kind,
And under that Almighty Fin,
The littlest fish may enter in.
Oh! never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,
But more than mundane weeds are there,
And mud, celestially fair;
Fat caterpillars drift around,
And Paradisal grubs are found;
Unfading moths, immortal flies,
And the worm that never dies.
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish."

Heaven   Rupert Brooke

Monday, 12 June 2017

Mysteries of the Yellow Earth

This cleverly designed jar could be a well used piece of twentieth century studio pottery, but it is in fact a Neolithic Chinese pot from c. 3000 BC, and is now in the Museum of Far Eastern Arts in Stockholm.

Storage jar, MFEA, Stockholm

This one has a similar dynamic curvilinear design, but is more obviously ancient.

Burial jar from Gansu Province, China   c. 2600-2300 BC.  © V&A Museum 

These Stone age Chinese pots caused a sensation when they were discovered in 1921 from ancient settlement sites in Yang Shao province, as they had been lost for thousands of years, neither seen nor recorded in China's long history.  They included both burial urns and storage jars and bowls.

It was geologist-turned-archeologist Johann Gunnar Andersson, who discovered several similar sites along the Yellow River Valley in Gansu province and at Yang Shao in 1921, and recorded the first recognised evidence of Neolithic culture in China.

These pots were made before the potter's wheel was in use - a straw mat was probably used to help turn the pot around as more clay coils were added; some pots show the weave impress on the base.  The pots were beaten and smoothed with rib bones and paddles, and after drying, the fine loess clay surface was decorated with earth pigments, iron black and manganese purple, before firing. The early brushes were probably just a bamboo stem frayed.  Others were painted after firing, and the decorated surface was carefully burnished with a bone or pebble to preserve it.*

Yangshao neolithic earthenware pot, Banpo Museum 

Andersson was a Swedish geologist, who had visited the Antarctic as a member of the Swedish expedition  (collecting fossils of plants) in 1901-03.  The loss of their ship the Antarctic meant Andersson was in one of the small groups completely isolated on different islands through the long winter with small odds of rescue in the spring.  China must have seemed very different when in 1914 he was employed by the Chinese government's geological survey to advise on coal and oil resources.

Johan Gunnar Andersson (1874-1960) in China, 1920
© Swedish East Asian Museum

Intrigued by a strange piece of quartz and tales of dragon-bones, when he first excavated their source at Zhoukoudian not far from Beijing, he correctly predicted that fossils of early man - homo erectus - would also be discovered in that region. Soon fossil teeth sent back to Uppsala were identified as human, and eventually announced to the world as Peking Man in 1926, when the Swedish Crown Prince visited China.  So from fossil hunter Andersson turned full-time archaeologist, and with all his Yang-Shao discoveries he became Director of Stockholm's  Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, and more of these striking painted burial urns later made their way into other European collections.

Painted pottery funerary urn, Yang Shao, c. 3000 BC MFEA Stockholm

A further major discovery (again a result of economic enterprise) was made in 1952 near Xi'an, when a site was being excavated for a new factory.  This site is now known as Banpo, after its team of diggers, and an extensive settlement was revealed with as many as six pottery kilns.  The Banpo pots clearly show the early animal and fish paintings from which the striking abstract geometric patterns were developed.

Fish decorated bowl   Banpo Museum China

Abstract patterns derived from fish decorations   Photo M. Reuterdahl 

Abstract patterned bowl, c. 3200-2650 BC. Gansu area  Metropolitan Museum, New York

The Banpo major archeological site is now a very busy tourist destination, with its museum opened in 1958.

But the story is incomplete.  Many of the Yang Shao ceramics, buried unknown for so many millennia before Andersson's excavations,  were then lost again after barely a quarter of a century.  Andersson returned very many of his finds (which had been studied in Sweden and were held in the Stockholm Museum), to China where they were last seen in 1937,  although some were still listed in 1948 in the Nanjing Museum guidebook.    Some  surviving pieces of those returned by Andersson were found  forgotten in storage in 2012, but many of these miraculous objects from prehistory which he brought to the light of day are still lost without trace.

And see China Heritage Quarterly;; China Before China, Magnus Fiskesjo & Chen Xingcan, 2004.

*Reference books give different accounts regarding whether the painting was done before or after firing, but as the excavated pots were being made over a very long time period, I assume there would have been differences in the materials and techniques and firing kilns at the various sites.

Monday, 5 June 2017

June: Portrait miniatures at the post-war V&A

Tuesday, 3rd June, 1947

"Heat at its height today.  I love it but it's stifling.  Everyone else complains….I had a dinner party of Billa Harrod, Puss Milnes-Gaskell and Leigh Ashton.  It was so hot that we sat with the windows and door open in a direct draught.  Leigh, being very fat, sweated profusely.  Food the best I have had here yet: chicken in aspic, strawberries and cream.  I am a bad host however, and inattentive.  Leigh took us to his Museum across the way where he showed us the Elizabethan miniature collection just opened.  They are beautifully displayed behind glass.  He is a splendid  showman.  The V & A was all lit up for us alone, and attendants there in their uniforms.  Billa stayed and talked until one o'c, for sleep is out of the question in this heat."

Caves of Ice James Lees Milne 1947

Sir Leigh Ashton  V&A Museum Director   © V&A

Back in March 1946  Leigh Ashton was in charge of restoring the V&A Museum, as its various collections filtered back from wartime storage in the Aldwych train tunnel, underground quarries in Wiltshire and from Montacute House, along with the "piles of dusty furniture in the downstairs basement".   He established new galleries according to historic periods, bringing together the finest or most historically significant pieces of furniture, metalwork, textiles, painting, sculpture and ceramics of their time in visually arresting displays.
But in 1947 this was yet to come.  Then there was a display of Wellington's military medals and insignia in the Entrance hall, a study collection of Coptic and French textiles in the gallery beyond, and Frederick, Prince of Wales' Royal Barge (now in the NMM at Greenwich) sitting in an adjoining gallery; other large architectural items  (staircases, house fronts) stood against walls with little coherent plan.

Today, some of the finest Tudor miniatures are on display in the British Galleries, by artists such as Holbein, Isaac Oliver and Nicholas Hilliard, alongside contemporary jewels and textiles.

Unknown Man  Isaac Oliver c. 1600 © V&A

Nicholas Hilliard painted this self portrait below in 1577, while he was in France; his portrait of Mary Queen of Scots,  is dated c. 1578-9 and is a repeat of one in the collection of HM. the Queen (the repeat uses the less costly blue bice pigment).
Mary Queen of Scots c. 1579-9  Nicholas Hilliard   © V&A

The Museum's extensive main collection of portrait miniatures is upstairs in Room 91.  It does not include the miniature Lees-Milne brought to the Museum in March 1946:  "I left at the Museum Queen Elizabeth's reputed napkin from Charlecote which Leigh thinks may be sixteenth century.  Also the miniature of Sir Thomas Lucy which may be by Isaac Oliver."    This is now back home at Charlecote Park and ascribed to William Larkin.

Sir Thomas Lucy III,  oil on copper, c. 1609-10   William Larkin  © National Trust

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Pages from the past, which "flew about like butterflies"

"In 1663 I entered into my Latin school at Yatton Keynell,, in the church….The fashion then was to save the ferules [bindings] of their books with a false cover of parchment, that is, old manuscripts, which I was too young to understand; but I was pleased with the elegancy of the writing and the coloured initial letters. …"

John Aubrey recounts how one rector used old manuscripts from Malmesbury Abbey  to stop up his beer barrels,  and another parson's sons used them to scour their guns.

"In my grandfather's days the manuscripts flew about like butterflies.  All music books, account books, copy books etc. were covered with old manuscripts, as we cover them now with blue paper or marbled paper; and the glovers at Malmesbury made great havoc of them; …One may also perceive by the binding of old books how the old manuscripts went to wrack in those days."

 John Aubrey, 1626-97  edited Richard Barber, © Folio Society  

John Aubrey, writer and antiquarian  1626-1697

Despite these and all the various destructive usage of old manuscripts and printed pages, miraculously many have survived.  One is a completely unique page from an early Willam Caxton book of 1476-7, a Latin printing of the 11th century Sarum Ordinal, which was resting in the University of Reading Library archives.  Lost for over 300 years, it had been found in 1820 being used to strengthen the binding of another book, but was unrecognised then as Caxton's printing.  Nearly a century later, it has recently been rediscovered while cataloguing a vast repository of fragments from a typographer's collection.  This rare "butterfly" is now on exhibition in Reading till mid June.  (see Beckett, Books  and Biscuits: University of Reading Special Collections for more information.)

William Caxton's printer's mark

Page with red letter initial, in the style of early manuscripts, from Caxton's Canterbury Tales 

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Sandleford Priory and Lady Montagu's bluestockings: "beauty blended with utility"

"The approach to the house is a fine lawn, with sheep feeding upon it.  This gives you the idea of beauty blended with utility, which always produces agreeable sensations in the mind."  
Memoirs of Mary Morgan 1791, A Tour to Milford Haven pub. 1795.

The Montagu family at Sandleford, Berkshire     Edward Haytley c. 1744
© the Huntington Library collection, San Marino California

These idyllic scenes of Georgian gentry amid pastoral pursuits on their country estates, were just as carefully contrived (by painters and patrons) as Capability Brown's landscapes.  Haymaking was a popular subject, as village women traditionally helped to bring in this all-important harvest, adding colour and interest to the scene.  Here we see Edward Montagu and his wife Elizabeth, married two years earlier, with her sister Sarah Scott, enjoying the prospect from Sandleford Priory south across the river Enborne to Newtown and Beacon Hill.  Haytley has included a telescope in this painting, just as in his picture of the Drake Brockman family at Beachborough House, Kent.

A mezzotint of 1776, after a lost portrait of Lady Montagu by Sir Joshua Reynolds 
© National Portrait Gallery London 

Elizabeth Montagu was left a wealthy widow in 1775 (Montagu's wealth came from Newcastle coal) and began updating the house and gardens.  She employed James Wyatt to link the house and the ancient Priory chapel.  He created a beautiful octagonal drawing-room with antechambers, linking the two buildings;  previously the old chapel had provided spare bedrooms if there was an overflow of guests, such as Hannah More and other members of Lady Montagu's "Bluestockings" circle. Sandleford would be a convenient stopover en route to Bath.

Lady Montagu was called "the Queen of the Bluestockings" by Samuel Johnson, for her literary salons held at Montagu House in Mayfair. Here there was no dancing, cards, or alcohol, but tea and lemonade to refresh the witty and intellectual conversation discussing the arts and ideas (but not scandal or politics) with women equal among men.  Fellow leading bluestockings were Mrs Elizabeth Vesey and Mrs Frances Boscawen, ladies of wealth and education, and guests at their salons included Edmund Burke, Mr and Mrs David Garrick,  Johnson, Fanny Burney and the Thrales, Horace Walpole, Reynolds and many women writers and philanthropists.  Promoting and supporting women's right to education, and to publish their work, was one of their leading concerns.

Capitalizing on their reputations, in this painting Richard Samuel has included Lady Montagu, "Queen of the Bluestockings" seated centre right, with Hannah More behind her, Angelica Kauffman at her easel, and Elizabeth Carter the poet and translator of Epictetus far left behind her.

Portraits in the characters of the Nine Muses in the Temple of Apollo   
Richard Samuel 1778  © National Portrait Gallery

It was Hannah More who wrote the comic "blue-stocking" poem The "Bas Bleu", or Conversation*, in praise of Mrs Veseypublished in 1784, but the name was probably begun by Mrs Vesey apropos of the retiring botanist, Dr. Benjamin Stillingfleet. He could not afford the black or white silk stockings expected for such social occasions, but was told by Mrs Vesey to turn up in his blue worsted hose, (blue being a cheap practical colour popular for servants, tradesmen and charity schoolchildren).
He "rendered himself so entertaining that the ladies used to delay their discussion until his arrival, declaring - 'We can do nothing without our blue stockings' - whence the bas bleu. "

Lady Montagu was herself celebrated in a poem by William Cowper,  in which he describes  her London salons as like a haven for exotic birds:
"The birds put off their feathery hue
To dress a room for Montagu……    

These were large rainbow-coloured woven feather screens "from gaudy peacock to solemn raven" astonishing even in her palatial Portland Square house, and Cowper compares her writers and intellectuals to the rare birds represented:

"All these to Montagu's repair,
Ambitious of a shelter there.
There Genius, Learning, Fancy, Wit,
Their ruffled plumage calm refit,

And in her eye, and by her aid
Shine safe without a fear to fade."
On Mrs Montagu's Feather Hangings*  William Cowper

Portman Square from Ackermann's Repository of Arts, c. 1831

The summers at Sandleford were spent in a simpler bucolic mode.  Philanthropic with her wealth in London and in the country,  Lady Montagu revived harvest suppers and entertainments for servants and tenants, and was a generous local benefactor. Yet she remained a lady of rank, enjoying from a distance the labours of others.  She writes to Mrs Vesey in July 1786:

 "I now inhabit [my new dressing room] with great pleasure: each window of the Bow presents a most delightful pastoral scene, which was yesterday rendered more gay by 33 Women and girls singing while they were weeding and picking up stones.   My heart….sympathised in their cheerfulness".

This is also Watership Down country.  One childhood exploration took us along a cart-track past haystacks and between the  fields of corn. Tiptoeing into shady coppices where Solomon's seal grew, it was so utterly silent that a startled wood pigeon  taking off would make us jump with fright.  Eventually we would see Sandleford Priory on the skyline.

 Sandleford Priory and High Wood, near Gorse Covert (Photo Rodolph@Wikimedia)

 It seems appropriate that Elizabeth Montagu's country home at Sandleford, where she supported women's learning, should have become a thriving girls' school.

*Both Hannah More's and Cowper's poems can be enjoyed on
For a fascinating study of women's lives, I recommend Behind Closed Doors, at home in Georgian England, by Amanda Vickery.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

May in Norfolk: dangerous ladies

Blickling Hall, Norfolk  © National Trust

Thursday, 1st May, 1947

"It is May Day and pouring and blowing icily.  Stopped at Cawston church to gaze my fill at the fourteenth-century roof and painted panels of saints on the screen.   At Blickling made my peace with the caretakers and Miss O'Sullivan who is always nice to me. Alec* came over and had some useful suggestions for arranging furniture.  The rooms now filled do not look any more beautiful because the furniture is on the whole poor. The house was today open for the first time, and only twenty people came. So we need not have fussed ourselves."  (*Alexander Penrose)

Caves of Ice  James Lees-Milne, 1947

Blickling Hall (built 1616) was one of Lees-Milne's favourite houses, although when he visited in May 1942 the RAF were occupying the house, not without causing some damage,  and a sea of Nissen huts was in the grounds.  In 1984 he met the teenage actors who were performing a play to celebrate the National Trust's acquisition of Blickling from Philip Kerr, 11th Marquess of Lothian,  in 1941.  "I am apparently the only person left who remembers Lord Lothian, [Donald] Matheson and the place in pre-war days." 

Although few people would have recognised it, Blickling Hall was seen in cinemas across England in 1945 and 46 when its exterior was used to represent "Maryiot Cells", the Buckinghamshire home of scandalous "Lady Skelton".  This was Margaret Lockwood's iconic film with James Mason, The Wicked Lady, in which the heroine sheds corsets and morals and turns highwayman herself.  Audiences both sides of the Atlantic were shocked and enthralled by their favourite stars in this period drama.

Gainsborough Film Studio poster c. 1945

Publicity film still for  "The Wicked Lady" (*from a story by Magdalen King-Hall)
 with Margaret Lockwood and James Mason

A more famous and charismatic lady associated with Blickling Hall is Anne Boleyn, as it was the home of her father Sir Thomas Boleyn, and Anne is thought to have been born there (around 1504)  although at that period Blickling Hall was still a moated late-medieval manor house.

Drawing of Queen Anne by Hans Holbein, © Royal Collection

Most of the contemporary portraits of Anne were destroyed after her death, and the accuracy of later paintings is open to doubt.  This miniature portrait was in the collection of Horace Walpole, at Strawberry Hill, when it was thought to represent Queen Katharine of Aragon.

Possibly Anne Boleyn, c. 1532-3  Lucas Hornbout
© 9th Duke of Buccleuch Trust

Returning to her childhood home, Anne is believed to haunt Blickling on May 19th, the date of her execution in 1536, carrying her bloody head with her.  She is driven, it is said, in a coach with flaming headless horses and driver; meanwhile, her over-ambitious father, Thomas Boleyn, later himself executed for his political scheming,  is condemned on the same night to cross a dozen bridges before cockcrow, driving from Blickling to Wroxham, every year for a thousand years.

View of the South Front  Entrance   © National Trust

Blickling is also famous for its Library, the collection of Sir Richard Ellys, which was brought to the House in 1740.  Among its 12,500 volumes are sure to be histories of the House and Estate, its famous occupants, and its ghosts.

The Library in the Long Gallery at Blickling
© National Trust

Today the gardens at Blickling are as beautiful as the house:  

"The first sight of the entrance front from the public road is so famous and breathtaking that every passing motorist halts instinctively to take a longer look.  But the secret of the place is only discovered late in the day among the trees and flowering shrubs that stretch upwards from the east side of the house.  Never has there been a garden quite like it, not at least since the eighteenth century,…Great arches of beech and oak form choirs and aisles, and under them grow azaleas, rhododendron, magnolias and wild bluebell."  Nigel Nicolson, 1978

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Resurrection , imperfect

John Donne Arriving in Heaven   Stanley Spencer, 1911   Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Stanley Spencer was inspired to paint this by reading Donne's Sermons, a book given him by his friends and fellow students at the Slade, Jacques and Gwen (Darwin) Raverat.  "One had been brought up with the notion that heaven was, if not all enveloping, at least straight ahead.  In this picture [Stan] told me, he had the idea that heaven was to one side: walking along the road he turned his head and looked into Heaven,"  Gilbert Spencer.

Resurrection, imperfect

"Sleep sleep, old Sun, thou canst not have repast
As yet, the wound thou took'st on friday last;
Sleepe then, and rest; the world may beare thy stay,
A better Sun rose before thee to day,
Who, not content to'enlighten all that dwell
On the earths face, as thou, enlightned hell,
And made the darke fires languish in that vale,
As, at thy presence here, our fires grow pale.
Whose body having walk'd on earth, and now
Hasting to Heaven, would, that he might allow
Himselfe unto all stations, and fill all,
For these three daies become a minerall;
Hee was all gold when he lay downe, but rose
All tincture, and doth not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make even sinfull flesh like his.
Had one of those, whose credulous pietie
Thought, that a Soule one might discerne and see
Goe from a body, 'at this sepulchre been,
And, issuing from the sheet, this body seen,
He would have justly thought this body a soule,
If not of any man, yet of the whole."

Poems  John Donne, 1573-1631

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes: 'Stay' away, 'stay' away Death...

Tucked away downstairs in London's National Gallery is a mysterious little painting, entitled  Death and the Maidens. It is an oil sketch for a large painting, now in the Clark Institute collection, and was inspired by a Schubert song* from 1817, later part of his famous string quartet No 14.

The young maiden begs fierce Death to pass her by,
"Go Fierce Death, I am still young, Please go, and do not touch me";
but Death replies that he is gentle:
"Give me your hand, Be of good cheer, I am not cruel, You will sleep softly in my arms".

Death and the Maidens, oil sketch  c. 1872   Pierre Puvis de Chavannes 
© National Gallery, London

The very fact that this is a sketch, while the artist is thinking his theme onto the canvas, gives it this sense of mystery, with the black-robed figure of Death loosely indicated in the foreground and a shadowy maiden stooped in the background.
As seen in the finished painting below, the theme is here clearly portrayed in Puvis de Chavannes' typical classicised Arcadian style, the sunlit maidens are enjoying the bloom of youth, gathering flowers, while Death lies apart, resting from his reaping; yet despite the clarity in its painting, that sense of enigma remains.

Death and the Maidens    Pierre-Cecile Puvis de Chavannes 1872
© Clark Institute,  Williamstown, Massachusetts

Puvis de Chavannes could also create drama and strong movement on the canvas, as in this painting of St John's beheading, with the same style of strong flat colour and clear outlines.

Death of St. John the Baptist   Pierre Puvis de Chavannes  1869
© Barber Institute, Birmingham, UK

In his lifetime, he was famous as a painter of monumental murals, in the style of Italian frescoes, such as Summer, painted for the entrance of the Musee d'Orsay, Paris 1873, or the Muses of Inspiration murals, installed in Boston Public Library in 1895,  and he was admired by the symbolists for his allegorical  classical scenes.    

Detail from "Summer "  1873     © Musee d'Orsay., Paris 

The painting below is based on his mural commissioned for his home town of Lyons, for their Musee 
des Beaux-Arts.  It was his practice while the actual murals were on exhibition prior to installation to create a smaller easel version. 

The Sacred Grove, beloved by the Arts and the Muses   Puvis de Chavannes   1884-89 

With his close friend Rodin, together with sculptors Jules Dalou and Eugene Carriere, they founded the new Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1890;  Puvis de Chavannes was its first president.  After his death in 1898, his style went out of fashion and over time his widespread influence was gradually forgotten.

Memorial to Puvis de Chavannes,   Auguste Rodin,  plaster, c. 1899  © Musee Rodin, Paris

Rodin designed this classically inspired and symbolic monument as memorial to his friend, although it was never cast. His portrait bust of Pierre-Cecile stands on antique architectural fragments, with the Spirit of Eternal Repose (a figure from Rodin's "Gates of Hell" inspired by Dante's Inferno and the classical statues in the Louvre) leaning against an apple tree, in Greek myth those apples of Hesperides which gave immortality.

Rodin's attributed last words were: "And it is said that Puvis de Chavannes is not beautiful".

*from Death and the Maiden poem by Matthias Claudius.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

April: the stones of Avebury, "a more delightful indagation"

Thursday, 2nd April, 1946

"…I drove with Eardley straight to Avebury.  He took me round the Circle.  He is madly keen on Avebury and rather peevish about my lack of enthusiasm and disrespect for the ugly stones which Keiller* has dragged from the ground into the light of day.  I cannot approve of the proposal to destroy the old village inside the Circle.  I admit that the empty sections of the Circle are impressive where the terraces have been cleaned of scrub and are neatly cropped by sheep; but to remove medieval cottages and clear away all traces of habitation subsequent to the Iron Age seems to me pedantic and a distortion of historical perspective.  We walked round the Manor garden.  Eardley was bored by the house because it is not classical and is romantic. Today's fashionable distaste for the romantic in English country houses is as overemphasised as was the Edwardians' for the classical and regular.""

Ancestral Voices  James Lees-Milne, 1946

Avebury Manor  © National Trust

It was John Aubrey, writer and antiquarian, whose careful study of the Avebury henge brought it to the attention of scholars.  Later travellers like Celia Fiennes and John Evelyn would record their visits to Stonehenge, but Avebury's apparently random stones were not widely noticed or remarked upon before 1649 when Aubrey chanced upon them during a hunt;  he stopped to look more closely and caught up with the hunt later.

"The morrow after Twelfth Day Mr Charles Seymour and Sir William Button met with their pack of hounds at the Grey Wethers….
'Twas here that our game began and the chase led us at length through the village of Avebury, into the closes there: where I was wonderfully surprised at the sight of those vast stones of which I had never heard before; as also at the mighty bank and graffe [ditch] about it .  I observed in the enclosures some segments of rude circles, made with those stones, whence I concluded they had been in the old time complete.  I left my company a while, entertaining myself with a more delightful indagation [investigation]: and then (steered by the cry of hounds) overtook the company, and went with them to Kennet, where was a good hunting dinner provided."  7th January 1649 (from his Monumenta Britannica ms.)

John Aubrey, engraving by C.F. Wagstaff after a drawing by William Faithorne, c. 1666 in the Ashmolean Museum

Aubrey gave Charles II a personal tour of the Avebury stones during the King's progress to Bath in the summer of 1663, just as James I  on seeing Stonehenge in 1620 had asked his Royal architect, Inigo Jones, to research the origins of that monument.

"I brought with me a draught of it donne by memorie only; but well enough resembling it, with which his Majesty was pleased: gave me his hand to kiss, and commanded me to waite upon him at Marlborough when he went to Bath with the Queen (which was about a fortnight later) which I did: and the next day when the Court were on their journie, his Majesty left the Queen and diverted to Avebury where I showed him that stupendous antiquity with the view thereof.   He and His Royal Highness the Duke of York were well pleased."  John Aubrey

 West Kennet Avenue, Avebury

In the seventeenth century, both Stonehenge and even more so Avebury's circles were in poor condition, with their sarsen stones buried, broken and removed; at Avebury they had been incorporated into village houses and the surrounding ditches filled in.  Nevertheless, the Royal visit put these  mysterious ancient monuments on the map for wealthy educated travellers.

Salisbury Plain was "eminent for many barrow or butts that are thick all over the plaine, and this of Stoneage, that is reckoned one of the wonders of England how such prodigeous stones should be brought there; ...  the story is that none can count them twice alike, they stand confused;"  Celia Fiennes, c. 1680s

Celia Fiennes counted only 91 but John Evelyn with difficulty counted 95 in July 1654, and thought  these sarsens were brought from Avebury.  In his Diary he describes the rural landscape, "for evenness, extent, Verdure, innumerable flocks, to be one of the most delightful prospects in nature and put me in mind of the pleasant lives of the Shepherds we reade of in Romances and truer stories:"  He also  mentions the barrows and mounds in the vicinity, as "antient intrenchments, or places of burial after bloudy fights:"

Indefatigable Samuel Pepys visited both Stonehenge and Avebury in June 1668. Like his friend Evelyn  he comments on the countryside: riding "over the downes, where the life of the shepherds is, in fair weather only, pretty",  and believes the profusion of stones around easily supplied both Stonehenge and Avebury.  He is told the legend of Silbury Hill, so called from one King Seale buried there, and sees from his coach, "one place with great high stones pitched round, which, I believe, was once some particular building, in some measure like that of Stonage".  

West Kennet Long Barrow  © National Trust

Even older than Avebury and Stonehenge is the West Kennet Long Barrow, a neolithic burial chamber c. 3650 BC.  Excavations in 1955-56 found it to have been used for burials for around a thousand years, at which period the entrance had been blocked off.   I went inside with a history group on a field trip once and it was a very eerie experience which I would not really wish to repeat.

* The revival of the Avebury complex is the result of Alexander Keiller's efforts to rescue and restore the stone circles and avenues in the 1930s,  and the history of the stones and his years of work is on view in the Manor House museum.  Objects he found while excavating the stones run from very early pottery shards through Roman coins and later carvings, to a piece of a Keiller's marmalade pot from 1900, found while digging up stone 14.  However, in his process of recreating the ancient site, the buildings and history of many later centuries were swept away.  James Lees-Milne's comments on the method Keiller chose are still a matter of controversy today.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Adventures in Troyes

" Chretien de Troyes has had the peculiar fortune of becoming the best known of the old French poets to students of medieval literature, and of remaining practically unknown to anyone else."  W.W. Comfort.

The first kiss,  Lancelot and Guinevere    French ms. c.1400  Bibliotheque National Paris

A trouvere at the court of Marie, Countess of Champagne, in late12th century Troyes, Chretien de Troyes is credited with writing some of the earliest Arthurian romances of courtly love, particularly introducing the story of Lancelot (The Knight of the Cart) and his fin amor for Queen Guinevere.  The characters and tales in his poems are well known to us even today, without having read a single word he wrote, made popular by countless later writers and artists.

Lancelot and Queen Guinevere     Herbert James Draper c. 1900 

"Such extravagant claims for Chretien's art have been made in some quarters that one feels disinclined to give them even an echo here. The modern reader may form his own estimate of the poet's art, and that estimate will probably not be high.  Monotony, lack of proportion, vain repetitions, insufficient motivation, wearisome subtleties, and threatened, if not actual, indelicacy, are among the most salient defects which will arrest, and mayhap confound, the reader unfamiliar with medieval literary craft."

This beautifully expressed condemnation comes from the introduction to Chretien's Four Romances, translated by William Wistan Comfort in 1914, who continues: "No greater service can be performed by an editor in such a case than to prepare the reader to overlook these common faults, and to set before him the significance of this twelfth-century poet."  An expert in French medieval literature,  whose doctoral thesis was on French chansons de geste, Comfort concludes:

"So we leave Chretien to speak across the ages for himself and his generation.  He is to be read as a storyteller rather than as a poet, as a casuist rather than a philosopher.  But when all deductions are made, his significance as a literary artist and as the founder of a precious literary tradition distinguishes him from all other poets of the Latin races between the close of the Empire and the arrival of Dante.

The first kiss, Paolo and Francesca, illustrating Dante's "Divine Comedy"   
Dante Gabriel Rossetti * c. 1867  © Tate Gallery London

 " Noi leggevam quel giorno per diletto
Di Lancelotto, come l' amor lo strinse."

"We read that day for delight, about Lancelot, how love bound him."
from Dante's Inferno, Canto 5;   Clive James, in the introduction to his translation.

If you are still not won over to to read Chretien's poems, you may well prefer the delights of Troyes, his old stamping ground, which has retained its medieval centre, shaped like a champagne cork, (although little has survived from Chretien's time outside of museums).

Street in old Troyes

Typical timber framed houses, rebuilt in traditional local style after a fire in 1524. 

 Fifteen or so years ago, Troyes hardly catered for tourists - no postcards, fridge magnets or t-shirts on sale - and you could safely walk down its main roads of an evening and barely see a car.  Then you could visit the unrestored church of St. Jean-au-Marche, (where Henry V married his French princess, Catherine de Valois in June 1420) - and admire its world-class collection of cobwebs,  or be dazzled by the stained glass there and in Troyes' other churches, and be moved by the delicacy of the carved Madonnas and saints in each church and museum.

Tree of Jesse window, partly 13th  century,  in Troyes Cathedral

Madonna and Child  

We wined and dined in Troyes' narrow streets and watched the cats cavort on the roof tiles, admired the efficient French pompiers dealing with a fire nearby as morning worshippers left the Cathdral, (the previous Cathedral had been burnt down in 1188 and was rebuilt over several centuries) and strolled in its parks and markets.

Summer in the Jardin du Belfroi

We found the skills of the medieval glass craftsmen brought up to date in the Museum of Modern Art. Maurice Marinot gave up a painting in 1913 to create his masterly blown and enamelled bowls and sculptural glass vessels, some taking a year to complete. His legacy is here along with paintings by French artists from Vuillard to Picasso, and a large collection of Andre Derain's paintings.

Maurice Marinot flask

 The Museum building was the former Bishops' Palace,  where our  tentative request for a corner in which to eat our picnic baguettes was met with smiling directions into the Palace's tranquil garden.

Musee d'Art Moderne, Troyes

Maybe because English visitors were fewer then, we were met with smiles and help on our visits by local bus and train to surrounding villages like Nogent-sur Seine, Chaource, and Bar-sur-Aube (home of one Champagne's  great medieval international markets).  You could understand how the treasures of this region might inspire Chretien de Troyes to write his courtly tales of romance and beauty.

*Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the Pre Raphaelite artists and writers to be inspired by Arthurian and other tragic lovers.  He also translated  Dante's poetry.