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.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Giovanni di Paolo; "through the looking-glass"

St. John the Baptist goes into the wilderness,    Giovanni di Paolo, tempera on panel 1454 
 © National Gallery, London

This is one of my favourite paintings at the National Gallery.  I saw it on my first-ever visit, when I was taking a French pen-friend sightseeing; and I was beguiled by the diminutive figure of St. John the Baptist setting off into the desert and appearing undiminished, reading his book among those jagged threatening mountains.  There is a cinematic quality to its narrative, as St John leaves a towering fortified gateway enclosing a domestic style chimney and later we see far below the miniature fields and out-of-scale buildings of the world he has left behind.  And are those bordering roses pointing towards the new ethereal world awaiting on the horizon?

Although this small painting is well-known, I have hugged it to myself as a secret personal pleasure for decades, and only recently found out more about the artist.

Giovanni di Paolo (c.1403-1482) was a leading Sienese artist, working in the tradition of the masters of the previous century, particularly Duccio,  both as a manuscript illuminator and painter.  Records show an early commission for a Book of Hours for the wife of a wealthy Milanese family in Siena.     For the majority of citizens the equivalent of these luxury devotional books were the golden painted altarpieces in their churches, the central panel of Christ or  Madonna and Child surrounded by panels showing the Saints and their lives. Predella panels formed the base support.

This is another panel from his St John the Baptist series; they are thought originally to have been part of a Madonna & Child altarpiece now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Birth of St John the Baptist   Giovanni di Paolo, predella panel 1454 
© National Gallery, London

Siena in the 14th and 15th centuries was a cosmopolitan trading city with influences from east and west for its artists, and particularly the Papal court in Avignon, as well as the new Florentine artists and sculptors.   Giovanni was a leading painter of the Sienese International Gothic school, which followed the Byzantine influences of the 1300s, to distinguish Siena from its rivals in Florence, but incorporated the new sense of Renaissance perspective and modelling of  human figures.  Here Di Paolo has manipulated the perspective of the bed to lead the eye back to the figures of the newborn saint and his father Zacharias writing his name, John.

He was also influenced by Gentile da Fabriano and Fra Angelico, and his paintings with their handling of colour and line create a dramatic sense of other worlds.

Saint Clare saves the sailors  c. 1455    © Gemaldergalerie, Berlin

 Composite altarpieces with many panels like these formed a visual focus of devotion during the ritual of prayers at Mass, when the priest had his back to the congregation.  When after the 1560s the priest stood behind the altar table, facing the congregation with the Eucharist in plain view, these powerful altarpieces were no longer as important and were gradually moved, broken up and destroyed or sold.   Now they are in collections across the world, on public view again but in parts and dispersed their original setting.

Fortunately Giovanni di Paolo's manuscript paintings for Dante's Paradiso are together and intact in book form just as they were conceived.  Here are a few of them:

Dante's "Paradiso",  Christ in his chariot,  Giovanni di Paolo  c. 1444-50   © British Library

   Beatrice guides Dante to meet Peter Damian in the sphere of Saturn, Canto 21.   © British Library

Nebuchadnezzar recounts his dream to Daniel,  Canto 4.  © British Library

Dante with Apollo before Parnassus,  Canto 1.    © British Library

"Minerva breathes, Apollo steers" - Beatrice leads Dante up towards the moon, Canto 2. 

Looking at Di Paolo's images of the Paradiso, it is no surprise that John Pope-Hennessy says of Di Paolo's work that, "he plunges, like Alice, through the looking-glass.."

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

March: Art treasures in Warwickshire

Upton House, near Banbury
Friday, 1st March 1946:

"I reached Upton [House, Warwickshire] at 6.30 to stay the night with the Bearsteds.  He and Lady B. both charming, with unassuming manners of the well-bred.  Hubert Smith arrived just in time for dinner, his car having broken down.

At midnight Lord B. took me round the house. Inside there is nothing of consequence architecturally save a  few early eighteenth-century chimneypieces and a beautiful Coleshill-style staircase, rearranged by Lord B. and extended.  Morley Horder, architect, built on to the house in the 1920s.  But heavens, the contents!  There is a lot of good Chippendale-style furniture and some marvellous Chelsea china of the very best quality.  It was badly packed away during the war when the house was occupied by a bank, and some on unpacking found to be damaged.  The picture collection superb, as fine as any private collection in England.  Many of the pictures are not yet back from the Welsh caves where they were stored with the National Gallery pictures.

It is only the garden he is offering with the house, but he wishes to include all the works of art.  So does his son who is to inherit."
Caves of Ice     James Lees-Milne, 1946

Upton House from the south  Anthony Devis c. 1784  © National Trust

View of the gardens and park

Lord Bearsted and his sister Mrs Nellie Ionides* were both great art collectors, as was their father Marcus Samuel the 1st Viscount, co-founder of the Shell Oil company.    Walter Samuel Bearsted, 2nd Viscount, acquired Upton House in 1927 and began remodelling it.  The wonderful art on display  includes original paintings for Shell Oil posters by well known British artists.   Here are just two:

 Farmers Use Shell    John Armstrong  1939 
© artist's estate  (Shell Art Collection loan) 

Charwomen Use Shell    Edward Ardizonne  1938
© artist's estate (Shell Art Collection loan)

Walter Samuel Bearsted was a  trustee of the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery, and Chairman of the Whitechapel Gallery;  both he and his son Richard wanted to bequeath the family collection to the National Trust.

The range and quality of the collection, which includes works by Stubbs, Hogarth, Brueghel, Canaletto, Tiepolo, Van der Goes - the list goes on, and many more can be seen at  Here are just three of nearly 200 paintings, selected almost at random.  

Crossing the Ford     Thomas Gainsborough c. 1750     © National 'Trust

Young man with a Pink     Hans Holbein the Younger 1533    © National Trust

Love among the Ruins   Edward Burne-Jones* 1894  © National Trust
*Burne-Jones was a friend of Nellie Ionides' father in law, Luke Ionides, and painted his sister, her husband Basil's Aunt Aglaia.