The Sacred Role of the Celtic Lioness

There is a pleasant aroma of real ale and a gentle hum of conversation from the bar of the Wimbledon Village Club. It lays claim to be the oldest social club in England, and has occupied the original building since its founding in 1858. At that time, the only alcohol served was claret, until the range was broadened in 1880.

I set my vision on higher things, and climb the stairs to the Museum of Wimbledon on the upper floor. At the front desk, two keen volunteers present me with a copy of “An Ode to Sister Nivedita, celebrating her 150th birth anniversary “. (A “blue plaque” was unveiled at her former home in Wimbledon High Street last November.) They encourage me to take in the associated display on a clockwise course around the little museum.

My booklet includes an article by the Rev Swami Purnanandaji Maharaj with the title I have taken for this post. Sister Nivedita was born Margaret Noble in 1867, at Dungannon in Co Tyrone. She grew up to become a teacher, beginning her career at a school in Keswick. In 1891, she moved to Wimbledon and opened her own school for all ages. As her career developed, she also became a prolific writer in papers and periodicals and a popular speaker. Amongst the learned and influential people she got to know were Lady Ripon and Lady Isabel Margesson, the founders of a literary coterie which came to be known as the Sesame Club.

In 1895, the circle welcomed Swami Vivekananda, the Bengali Hindu revivalist, on his visit to London. Margaret was profoundly struck by his presence and by the “dignity ” of his religious philosophy. He was impressed by her enthusiasm and her capacity for commitment to a cause. Two years later, he invited her to India, and she arrived there in early 1898. The Swami indicated her status as “a real lioness to work for Indian women specially “. She joined the Ramakrishna Mission and, upon induction into the monastic community, received her new name.

After Vivekananda’s death in 1902, Sister Nivedita gravitated towards the more militant anti colonial wing in Bengal. Following Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal in 1905, she became involved with the swadeshi movement. She assisted in relief work in the wake of flood, famine and plague, and continued tirelessly until her death, shortly before her forty-fourth birthday, in Darjeeling, West Bengal.

The Indian master Tilopa was born in Bengal in 988. He commented on the Symbolism of the Sesame:

“The oil, which is the essence of the sesame, although known even by the ignorant to be in the seed, cannot be extracted unless it is learnt how to do so. Likewise, the innate gnosis (sahaja jnana), though always present in the hearts of beings, is not realised unless a wise Guru explains the way. By pounding the sesame, removing the husks, it is possible to extract the essential oil.”

The Uses of Enchantment

In Chapter Four of “The Gothic Revival” (Phaidon, 1999), Chris Brooks tells us that Horace Walpole’s House, Strawberry Hill, became the best known product of this 18th Century movement partly through “Horry”‘s own vast correspondence and tireless propaganda. Walpole’s stated aim was “to build a little Gothic castle”. As Brooks comments, “The house became a palimpsest of architectural quotations.”.

I am here for a Murder Mystery Evening, complete with three course dinner, in this sumptuous setting, and we have been invited to dress in 1920s style. As Strawberry Hill was bought by St Mary’s College, a Vincentian seminary, in the 1920s, the women have assumed that the organisers were thinking rather of Flapper style. Indeed, there is jazz of the era playing in the background as participants arrive. Some of the men appear to have dressed as gangsters, others have opted for black tie.

Famously, Walpole wrote “The Castle of Otranto”, widely regarded as the first Gothic novel, in his study here. The atmosphere he wanted in his home, he said, was one of “gloomth” – gloom touched with warmth – and this points up the enigma of how the horror of murder can inform an entertainment.

In his review of Bettelheim’s 1976 work, “The Uses of Enchantment”, John Updike notes: “The wicked stepmothers and fairy godmothers he translates as, all, Mother, and the kings and hunters and even wolves as, simply, Father.” In this evening’s entertainment, Father is already deceased and there is a Stepmother who, if not wicked, is at least vulgar. The solution, involving arsenic, barely matters; the fun lies in provoking the actors into ever greater heights of improvisation.

Horace’s parents were estranged before he was born. His mother Catherine, to whom he was close, died when he was 19, and his father Sir Robert Walpole, who served as Prime Minister, died less than a decade after her.

Lavishly though Walpole entertained his guests, he was sparing in his own diet, and when their company became too much for him, he would retire to his “Cottage in the Woods” across the way. He was a far from unthinking individual, and was one of the first to question the morality of the slave trade. He observed: “The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.”

Playing the game

In the prologue to her 1993 biography of the “Georgian” poet Walter de la Mare (born in 1873), the late Theresa Whistler acknowledged that in writing it: “I had one great prior advantage by accident of birth. I inherited a friendship with him already intimate through three generations by the time I was born, 1927. My mother’s father, Henry Newbolt, had by then been a close friend of de la Mare’s for a quarter century.”

Theresa, and before her, her sister Jill, was married to the glass engraver Laurence Whistler. He engraved a verse by de la Mare on a window pane of Southend House, Marble Hill, where de la Mare lived at the end of his life. In these later years, de la Mare continued to work. In 1943, he edited an anthology entitled “Love”. He struggled with the Introduction, commenting to his closest work-friend, Forrest Reid: “Sleeping Beauty was not more thornily hedged in than this subject is, and the hardiest bramble is sex.”

Today I am kept from getting closer to the three storey, early Georgian, Southend House not by brambles but by wrought iron gates. I reflect that de la Mare died here, in the early hours of 22nd June 1956: his last words were, “I’m perfectly all right.”

James Campbell notes that , according to the “kindly” Whistler, “De la Mare remained faithful to (his wife) Elfie, even when their union wearied him”. Although he holidayed with “the younger, strikingly modern” Naomi Royde-Smith, in later life she declared that they had never been intimate, though she “had wanted them to be”. Campbell goes on: “His final years were passed largely in bed, in the care of a young nurse, Nathalie Saxton, with whom he had once been in love…..In this case, her Christianity, as well as his principles, forbade consummation.”.

Campbell writes of De la Mare’s “Gothic whimsy and goblin language “. The poetry of Sir Henry Newbolt is more readily identified with Victorian propriety and the Protestant work ethic. Nonetheless, his biographer Susan Chitty explains that Margaret Duckworth accepted Newbolt’s marriage proposal only on condition that her cousin Ella Coleman, with whom Margaret was already in love, became part of their intimate life together.

Robert Fulford records that “In 1923 (Newbolt) made a cross-country lecture tour of Canada and discovered to his dismay that wherever he went, audiences loudly demanded he recite “Play up, ” (“Vitai Lampada”), apparently the only Newbolt poem they knew.”

The poem ends:

“This they all with a joyful mind

Bear through life like a torch in flame,

And falling fling to the host behind-

‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’ “

The dogs bark but the caravan passes on

In her New York Times Magazine article, “Is Cultural Appropriation Always Wrong?”, Parul Sehgal recounts how, as an accompaniment to a 2015 lecture called “Claude Monet: Flirting With the Exotic”, visitors were invited to pose next to Monet’s “La Japonaise” while wearing a matching kimono. Young Asian-Americans protested against the host, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In response, the Museum made kimonos available for visitors to touch, but not to try on.

From 1757 the royal grounds at Kew, Surrey, were transformed with a fabulous scheme of ornamental buildings and pleasure gardens. Eventually, the southern end of the gardens became the site for a Pagoda framed by an “Alhambra” and a Mosque. Nehabat Avcioglu has argued that the erection of these structures as Britain achieved important victories in the Seven Years’ War means that “the vision of a global British empire was first staged” at Kew.

The Chinoiserie style which was so fashionable in the 1750s was seen as highly decorative and was often deemed frivolous, suitable for less serious spaces such as gardens or women’s private apartments. Sir William Chambers, the Scottish-Swedish architect, completed the Great Pagoda in 1762. I passed it on my way to the exit at the Lion Gate of Kew Gardens: after a two year programme of restoration, it will be open to the public from the end of May. The theme continued as I boarded the 65 bus at the Pagoda Avenue stop in Kew Road.

Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs”, currently showing in cinemas, is an animated film featuring a 12 year old boy hero, Atari, on a quest to find his dog. In one scene, he insists on pausing in the hunt to take a ride on an abandoned pagoda slide. He is briefly distracted from his single mindedness by his desire to play. The setting is a fictional Japanese city of the future, and the film has drawn accusations from some quarters of cultural appropriation.

Anderson, interviewed on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, speaks of “when I start a new project and think: “Is this too much like something we did before? Am I stealing from myself here and somebody’s going to notice?” ”

Guoying Stacy Zhang concludes her article, “The Secularization of Pagoda Imagery in 18th Century Europe and China” with the thought: “Nevertheless, it is intriguing to see how pagoda imagery enriched material culture in both Europe and China in a rather harmless way.” The opening line of Parul Sehgal’s piece was: “It’s a truth only selectively acknowledged that all cultures are mongrel.”

Sound advice from the interactive map

With the support of my tablet, I have found my way to the Nightingale Hospital to visit a friend. The directions warn me to “use caution – walking directions may not always reflect real-world conditions “.

Beneath the high pediment is proudly emblazoned the name of the eponymous Florence. She was appointed in late April 1853 to her first senior nursing position at the hospital when it was known as the Establishment for Gentlewomen during Temporary Illness. Florence was of her medical generation in holding throughout her life to a belief in the miasmatic explanation of the cause of disease. This theory held that epidemics of diseases such as cholera originated in a miasma of particles emanating from rotting organic matter. (Germ theory would not be proposed, by Louis Pasteur, until 1861.) Her legacy, however, is not in doubt, and is rooted in her aphorism: “…never lose an opportunity of urging a practical beginning, however small, for it is wonderful how often in such matters the mustard-seed germinates and roots itself.” She undertook seminal work during the Crimean War of 1854-56; amongst her pioneering work is counted her use of applied statistics.

In 1854 there was a severe outbreak of cholera near Broad Street in Soho. Two local men in particular made it their professional concern: Dr John Snow and the Rev Henry Whitehead. Dr Snow sensed that contaminated water from the public pump in Broad Street was the cause of the outbreak. He mapped the cases of cholera and proved to his own satisfaction that they were clustered around the pump. Snow appears to have cut through a Gordian knot of medical debate by persuading the Board of Guardians of St James’s Parish to remove the handle of the Broad Street pump on Friday 8th September.

With the death of John Snow in 1858, Whitehead was left as the main authority on the Broad Street outbreak when cholera returned to London in 1865. In a presentation of 1867, he stated: “I must not omit to mention that if the removal of the pump-handle had nothing to do with checking the outbreak which had already run its course, it had probably everything to do with preventing a new outbreak…”. Although Whitehead had been unconvinced by Snow’s 1855 work, “On the Mode of Communication of Cholera “, he was eventually able to give up his allegiance to miasma theory in a new understanding of waterborne disease.

Key to the sanitary reform of London was the work of Joseph Bazalgette, Chief Municipal Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works. He was primarily responsible for the creation of the extensive network of sewers under the streets of central London. His revolutionary proposals began to be implemented in 1858. In his planning, Bazalgette calculated the diameter required for the pipes, then doubled it, reasoning: “Well, we’re only going to do this once and there’s always the unforeseen.”

To quote Bertrand Russell: “Although this may seem a paradox, all exact science is dominated by the idea of approximation. When a man tells you that he knows the exact truth about anything, you are safe in inferring that he is an inexact man.”

Back from the brink

Sculpture: “Lot’s Wife” by Hamo Thornycroft

On the eve of Holy Week in the Western Christian Church, I am joining in a Quiet Day at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, and reflecting on the poem “Threshold” by R. S. Thomas. In it, he poses three rhetorical questions:

“…………………..I have lingered too long on

this threshold , but where can I go?”

To look back is to lose the soul

I was leading upwards towards

the light. To look forward? Ah,

what balance is needed at

the edges of such an abyss.

I am alone on the surface

of a turning planet. What

to do but, like Michelangelo’s

Adam, put my hand

out into unknown space,

hoping for the reciprocating touch?”

The reference to looking back has echoes not only of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but also of the stories in the Book of Genesis of Lot and his wife (Ado, or Edith, in some Jewish traditions) and of Adam and Eve. Kate Bernheimer, in her book, “xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths”, writes that Orpheus’s music had the power to save Eurydice, and yet she was not spared in the end, and neither was he. Thus “both the power and the limitation” of artistic inspiration are captured in the myth.

According to orthodox Christian belief, the fall of Adam and Eve from Paradise placed all humanity in the power of the devil until Christ redeemed those who accepted the faith by his death on the Cross. But what about those who had lived and died before Christ’s incarnation? This led to the legend, first found in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, that between his death on the Cross and his resurrection, Christ went to Hell, overthrew the Devil, released the ancient righteous along with Adam and Eve, and led them to heaven. This is the subject of the fragmentary Latin “Harrowing of Hell” (found in the 9th Century Book of Cerne but possibly derived from 8th Century Lindisfarne, making it quite likely the earliest dramatic work from Britain).

Thomas was fiercely Welsh, and an Anglican priest, and would have known of the old Welsh wedding tradition of Priodas Coes Ysgub, or Broom Stick Wedding, where the couple perform the symbolic action of jumping over a broom of twigs and straw within the wedding ceremony. The broom represents the threshold of the home, and can also symbolise sweeping away negativity, helping the couple to start their new life with a clean slate. In her poem, “Lot’s Wife”, Wislawa Szymborska describes how a crack suddenly opens in the earth beneath the fleeing woman’s feet:

“Anyone who saw me must have thought I was dancing.”.

Scots artist Peter Howson, OBE, earned fame as one of the New Glasgow Boys. He believes now that he was suffering from “a sickness of the soul” when he accepted the position of official war artist in the Bosnian Conflict for the Imperial War Museum in London in 1993. In 2007, he produced “The Harrowing of Hell”, which lent its name to his exhibition in the following year.

BBC Scotland broadcast a documentary film in November 2010, entitled “The Madness of Peter Howson”. In it, the actor Steven Berkoff, a collector of Howson’s work, commented:

“Having Howson in my life has in some way given me a sense of what I am. We need artists like we need lightning rods…It is the artist who is struck and scarred and burned by the lightning.”

City of Light

I am sitting in the sunshine of the Place des Vosges, sheltered by the precise square of its 17th Century terraces, when I notice I am a little too warm, and that it is the first day of Spring. I had not planned my flying visit to Paris for this reason, but it seems to have worked out just right.

Yesterday I was at the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur. As I climbed the streets of Montmartre towards it, a worker clad from head to foot in white overalls was lowering himself through a manhole. At Mass, a Benedictine nun who is providing musical accompaniment plays a zither. (The congregation of nuns attached to the Basilica was conceived of by Adèle Garnier at a time in 1872 when the building was still at the planning stage and she was not yet ordained.)

Too late: this European city is obliging me to think of “The Third Man”.

In February 1948, Graham Greene, author of the screenplay, flew to Vienna at the invitation of producer Alexander Korda. Greene had written just an opening paragraph, and it was Korda who believed that the war-damaged capital would make an excellent film setting. Greene lunched with a British intelligence officer who told him that he had tried to abolish the “Underground Police”, only to discover that they were not secret police, but rather police who worked along the sewers. “I had my film”, Greene later recalled.

Surprisingly, the section of dialogue improvised in the film by Orson Welles – the one comparing the devious Italian Renaissance culture that spawned Michelangelo and Leonardo with the peace-loving Swiss temperament, which had produced the cuckoo clock – is believed not to be original. Students of the film have guessed the source to be the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

Yip Harburg, Broadway and Hollywood lyricist, wrote “April in Paris” after a producer had ordered a set representing a Parisian scene and told Mr Harburg to write a lyric suitable for it. When he was asked how he had evoked the city so warmly despite never having been there, he responded, “After all, I was never over the rainbow either.”

On the night of April 21st, 1944, thirteen bombs dropped on Sacré-Cœur and shattered all the stained-glass windows. Its stated vocation, perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, went on.

You had to be there

Picture: “A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery” (1766) by Joseph Wright of Derby

A sharp wind blowing across the forecourt of Derby Station drove me into the bar of the Midland Hotel opposite, in search of a hot lunch. As I waited for my order to arrive, I gradually tuned in to the conversation around me. Following a quick online search, I deduced that I had blundered into the post-match discussion between participants in a Braille Chess Association tournament.

Fed and watered, I pressed on to the Joseph Wright of Derby Gallery in the local Museum. Again I sailed in to a situation of playing catch-up with reality. I had been particularly looking forward to seeing the original “A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun”. However, the first thing to strike me in this room was Carl Clerkin’s “Long Crawlies and Little Crawlies” , a “family of flexible seating”. In a speech of 2008, Sir Christopher Frayling explained that “the installation aims to inspire people to look at the 18th Century paintings differently, to see them as specific stories of real individuals, rather than solely through the lens of art history.”

In the meantime, I gaze at Wright’s typically chiaroscuro painting with two points made by Abram Fox in mind. Firstly, that the painter was, by taking as his “moral” the pursuit of scientific knowledge, extending the boundary around the traditional depiction of a moral of leadership or heroism. Secondly, that the painting mimics the compositional structure of a conversation piece (or informal group portrait), without giving us any certainty as to the identities of its subjects. The Gallery’s caption to the painting comments: “Light unites them in an understanding of their place within this larger, ordered system.”

Several identities have been proposed for the philosopher delivering the lecture. His face may be modelled on that of Sir Isaac Newton, whose work helped to herald the Enlightenment. Alternatively, the face may be that of a member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham.

Finally, my own associations to the picture. One, gleaned from an image popular on Christmas cards: “Adoration of the Shepherds ” (1622) by Gerrit van Honthorst (known in artistic circles from the 18th Century onwards as “Gherardo delle notti” for his trademark skill at rendering nocturnal lighting).

The other remembered from Robert Frost’s poem, “The Bonfire”:

“……………………And let’s be the talk

Of people brought to windows by a light

Thrown from somewhere against their wall-paper.”

The Land of Counterpane

Above: Landscape, by Marilyn Harris

It’s just as well I had nothing in the diary for this weekend, as all I felt capable of doing was nestling under the duvet. My mind wandered to childhood coughs and colds, with a bottle of Lucozade in its golden cellophane wrapper, and reading matter scattered over the eiderdown. Robert Louis Stevenson describes the scene in his poem, named above:

“I was the giant great and still

That sits upon the pillow-hill,

And sees before him, dale and plain,

The pleasant land of counterpane.”

Stevenson’s life-long health difficulties were based in his lungs. He came from a family which had earned wealth from lighthouse engineering, and his Edinburgh childhood would have exposed him to industrial pollution. As a young man, Stevenson pursued legal studies to satisfy his father, and was admitted to the Bar by the age of twenty-five. He then embarked on a life of travel, adventure and writing for publication. In style, he was a Neo-Romantic, and at the height of his popularity was hugely successful.

Stevenson’s father died in 1887. By then, Stevenson had married an American woman ten years his senior. In 1890, Stevenson purchased a four hundred acre estate on the island of Upolu, Samoa, and lived there with his wife and her son. By 1894, Stevenson had become increasingly depressed, convinced the best of his work was behind him. He wrote that he wished his illnesses would kill him. In December of that year, while taking a glass of wine on the verandah of his mansion, Stevenson died at the age of forty four.

Representatives of the modernist aesthetic, including Virginia Woolf (author of “To the Lighthouse”, Stevenson’s father might have cared to know), came to criticise his style and to question its value as writing for adults. When Henry James learned of his death, however, he wrote:

“It makes me cold and sick – and with the absolute, almost alarmed, sense of the visible material quenching of an indispensable light….I’m not sure that it’s not for him a great and happy fate; but for us the loss of charm, of suspense, of “fun” is unutterable.”

Tropic of Curating

Jerry Saltz, senior art critic for New York Magazine, detects a torpor around the “Tropic of Curating”, where he looks for the “uncanny alchemy” of good curating. So as I approached York Art Gallery through the mist of the first Sunday in March, I was alert to know what Saltz describes as “the things you didn’t know you needed to know until you know them”. The gallery is exhibiting “Paul Nash and the Uncanny Landscape”: you may need to know that the exhibition is curated by John Stezaker and continues until mid-April.

When Michel Ciment interviewed Stanley Kubrick about his film “The Shining”, the late director made reference to Freud’s observation that the uncanny is the only feeling which is more powerfully experienced in art than in life. Kubrick tells Ciment that the ultimate test of the rationale of a story of the supernatural is whether it is good enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

On this occasion, of course, I was enjoying not the group experience of being a member of a cinema audience, but the individual one of walking around a gallery. Although I had a companion, our respective responses to the exhibition as a whole depended on our personal histories. The hairs on the back of my neck were not raised: but I was reminded of a visit to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool not six months ago, when a picture produced exactly this response.

The picture was “The Falling Star” by James Hamilton Hay. Until today I had no inkling that, of the nine artists who became members of the London Group of artists in 1914, one was Paul Nash and another James Hamilton Hay.

As we left the Minster that afternoon, following Evensong, a lone busker was performing “Starry, starry night”. He earned his coin.