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.