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.


Robbers and trespassers

An hour or so by train from Clapham Junction delivered me to the edge of the South Downs National Park, and the town of Arundel.

There’s a Tarrant Street in Arundel, and it has a tale to tell.

The name itself derives from the Celtic Trisantona, a variant of the Latin Trent, from the word for trespasser, ie a river likely to flood. In Norman times, Tarrant Street was probably a subsidiary street, running along the edge of the higher ground to give access to the frontage of the River Arun.

In 1983, excavations revealed that beneath mediaeval housing was evidence of a very large and luxurious 1st century Roman villa, built between the west end of the street and the river. The majority of the walls were found to be reduced to robber trenches. That is to say, the valuable material for a new mediaeval or Roman building which the foundations offered had been dug out and carried away. (The stain left by the disturbance of the stratigraphy, resulting in a change in soil colour, is the robber trench.)

Around 1420, many believe, John Fitzalan, 13th Earl of Arundel, built a mansion known as Nineveh House in Tarrant Street. Apparently , he feared losing his ownership of Arundel Castle to his relative Thomas Mowbray in an inheritance challenge, though this did not come to pass. One wonders about the name he gave his residence. In the Bible, this historic capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire was the popular target of prophetic denunciations, and stood in turn for pride and for repentance (“we can do this the hard way or the easy way”).

About 1833, the mansion was finally demolished to make way for a Congregational Chapel. In 1850, George MacDonald, the Scottish poet and children’s writer, became pastor there. Within two or three years, however, he was ousted by some twenty members of his congregation, who took exception to the tone of his preaching; for example, that Hell might be a metaphorical “refining fire” that was only meant to last as long as was needed to bring about repentance in the sufferer.

The last book for children that MacDonald wrote, “The Princess and Curdie”, ends with the foundations of the kingdom being undermined by the greedy populace, eager for gold and jewels from the mines. His story “The Golden Key”, features a boy whose great aunt tells him of a golden key which may be found at the end of the rainbow. The boy speculates that it may be worth a lot of money. Replies his aunt: “Better never find it than sell it.”.

The church building is known as Nineveh House these days and is devoted to the trade of antiques.


Painting: “Girl with Sunflowers” by Michael Ancher

Sometimes a good experience, such as my walk last Friday round Bedford Park in West London, is enhanced by the smallest events. Amongst these I count: arriving at the bus stop just as the 391 bus arrived, both on the way to Chiswick High Road and back again; and discovering that I should offer sunflower hearts and seeds to the bullfinch visiting my garden.

Thomas Bulfinch was an American Latinist, banker and author of “Bulfinch’s Mythology “. In 1855 he wrote: “Our work is … for the reader of English literature, of either sex, who wishes to comprehend the allusions… which occur in polite conversation.” He explained, for instance, that “the sunflower is a favorite emblem of constancy”, with reference to the Greek myth of Clytie and Helios. Owing to the virtue that attracts the flower to the sun, the sunflower stands for the constancy of honest love that follows its object everywhere.

Bedford Park, the first Garden Suburb, was developed in the era of Aestheticism, which inhabited the shift from Victorian to Modern. Sir John Betjeman assessed it as “the most important suburb in the Western world “.

H.R. Fox Bourne edited The Bedford Park Gazette, which appeared monthly between July 1883 and July 1884, giving us a chronicle of the community’s early spirit and aims. In “The Early Community at Bedford Park”, Margaret Jones Bolsterli explains that the most outstanding example of cooperation in Bedford Park was the Bedford Park Club. She notes that at the annual Club dinner in 1882, “the worship of the sunflower” was the last toast proposed.

She also identifies Jonathan Carr, developer of the estate, and Moncure Conway, minister and journalist, as the two most influential figures in the Park. Conway suggested that when it came to choosing the interior decoration for their newly built homes, incoming residents favoured decorations by William Morris so heavily that Morris would have to build a shop near Bedford Park to handle the trade. It was Morris who popularised the sunflower motif in an Arts and Crafts context, and it can be seen on the outside of various houses in this area.

H. R. Fox Bourne appears somewhat disingenuously to have been responsible for the “Outsider” column of the Gazette. He surely stands for constancy to the community object, however, in his riposte to a correspondent who worried that “the locality would…become like Battersea, Dalston, and such compound lodger places”.

Fox Bourne wrote that if the correspondent believed correctly that “Bedford Park was meant to be an aggregation of units, holding aloof from one another on account of their “superior social position” or anything of that sort, it strikes me that the project has failed completely, and that its failure is a matter of hearty congratulation.”.

Love made manifest

I had crossed the water meadows to West Harnham in beautiful sunlight the day before, but the rain set in early on the morning of Shrove Tuesday, and I returned to Salisbury Cathedral Close by taxi. My driver told me that, although he and his wife moved to the city several years ago, they had only recently, for the first time, walked around the outside of the Cathedral after dark, and been amazed by the effect of the lights shining from its interior.

I went to the basement of the Sarum College Bookshop, and having seen the Rex Whistler Prism in the Morning Chapel the day before, was pleased to find a booklet on the glass engravings of Laurence Whistler. He himself wrote: “After an evening concert you may see an audience streaming across a dark Close, and hardly one in fifty turns about for an experience as thrilling and exalted as Mozart.”

Laurence was born in 1912, the youngest of the four children of his parents, Henry and Helen Whistler, who according to the Census of 1911 were at that time living in Court Road, Eltham, with their children, Jessie, Denis Amor (who would live only another four years), and Reginald (Rex).

Evelyn Waugh is said to have borrowed features of Rex for his character of Charles Ryder in “Brideshead Revisited”, and of Rex’s artistic contemporary Stephen Tennant, “the brightest of the Bright Young People”, for the character of Lord Sebastian Flyte. Rex and Laurence became distinguished in their respective fields of art, design and illustration, and of poetry and glass engraving.

In 1944, Laurence suffered two grievous losses: in July, Rex was killed on his first day of active service in Normandy; and in November, not long after the birth of their second child, his actress wife Jill Furse died of a blood infection. They had married in Salisbury Cathedral in 1939, before the outbreak of war.

In the 1980s, Laurence Whistler was given the opportunity to create a memorial to his brother in the Cathedral, and in response he created a revolving, illuminated prism which reveals a series of images of the Cathedral. In a book he wrote in 1985, he commented: “the light needs the dark to become articulate “. As another poet, Emily Dickinson, expressed it:

“I see thee better in the dark,

I do not need a light.

The love of thee a prism be

Excelling violet.”

Beyond the mallet and the chisel

Above: Regent St Colonnade c1825

Following a day’s training at Regent’s University, I left the building and regained the Outer Circle of The Regent’s Park. Instead of retracing my steps to Baker Street Station, I turned left towards Regent’s Park Station. From here it’s a stone’s throw to Portland Place, and the beginning of the great thoroughfare developed by John Nash in the early nineteenth century in his role as the Prince Regent’s favourite architect. The route ran south via Regent Street to the site of Carlton House, the prince’s residence. It was the era of the Picturesque, a concept largely created by the Rev William Gilpin, artist and writer. A guiding principle was “accidental irregularity “. Nash made a virtue of necessity and, where there were kinks in the royal route, disguised them with the Quadrant Piccadilly and All Souls, Langham Place.

Gilpin wrote of depicting architecture in a painting : “Should we wish to give it picturesque beauty, we must use the mallet instead of the chisel; we must beat down one half of it, deface the other, and throw the mutilated members around in heaps.”

Today’s trainer offered the concept of the neuro-idealised self. The context brings to mind the lines of Yeats:

“But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

The Agatha Christie Indult*

*in Catholic canon law, permission to do something that would otherwise be forbidden

Around 1970, major liturgical changes were being introduced in the Catholic Church under the papacy of Paul VI. Over fifty prominent figures in British society signed a petition to the Vatican requesting the continued use of the Tridentine rite where wished in England and Wales. The letter noted its exceptional artistic and cultural heritage. Leo Darroch, in a speech, recounted the story that the Pope read through the letter in silence, then suddenly exclaimed, “Ah, Agatha Christie!” and then signed it. Ever since the granting of the Indult in 1971, it has been known informally as “the Agatha Christie Indult “.

I am standing in a short queue of genteel women of a certain age at the bar of the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate. The customer ahead of me asks the barman tentatively, “Can I use money here?”. I have some sympathy . Here in the Montpellier Quarter, there is a general air, on a Sunday afternoon in January at any rate, of treating everyone as a convalescent until proved otherwise. The currency is in question.

In 1926 this hotel was known as the Hydro. At the end of that year, which had seen a General Strike in the UK, Agatha Christie was not petitioning anyone. In particular, she was not petitioning for divorce, despite her husband’s affair with a woman he was eventually to marry. On the evening of Friday 3rd December, she in some way reached her emotional limit, and fled to the stately cosiness of the Harrogate Hydro. On Wednesday 8th December, the Daily Sketch carried the headline, “SAID SHE WAS GOING FOR WEEKEND VISIT TO A YORKSHIRE SPA”. The line beneath ran: “No evidence that she went there”.

As late as February 1928, Agatha’s disappearance (she left staff to manage her 7 year old daughter), was a byword for duplicitous conduct. During a libel action, reference was made by the prosecuting counsel to “a woman who played a foolish hoax on the police”. Dame Agatha’s biographer, Laura Thompson, explores exhaustively the circumstances around Agatha’s disappearance from her ordinary life. She writes: “Her eleven days in the wilderness are a myth, a poem. They exist in a different sphere from that of theories and solutions.”

As a child, Agatha feared for the soul of her father, who played croquet in the garden on Sundays. By the time she was 36, and in desperate need of healing for her wounded heart, one feels she would have granted him the freedom to negotiate the hoops in any way that lay open to him.

A Far Cry From Islington

(With apologies to Muriel Spark)

Of the six sestieri of Venice, Dorsoduro is one of the less “touristic”. It attracts artists, designers and writers. Walter Sickert, “the godfather of modern British art”, worked in Venice on and off for ten years, and , after his first few years of painting its most famous buildings, painted lesser known views such as that of the 16th century church of the Carmini in Dorsoduro.

Ever since former psychoanalyst Salley Vickers made the Dorsoduro church of Angelo Raffaele central to the action of her first novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, it has become something of a pilgrimage destination for her readers. (I can testify from my own visits there at intervals of a few years that it has grown sprucer and more available for visits.)

Salley Vickers underpins her story of Miss Garnet with the ancient tale of Tobias, who travels to Media unaware he is accompanied by the Archangel Raphael. She also tells, on her website, of the Cima altarpiece – in Carmini – of the Nativity, where Tobias stands with his dog and his fish, holding a kindly Raphael’s hand. It’s useful to know that Raphael, who is identified with healing, was associated with Dorsoduro as the totem of sailors arriving from the East bringing silk, spice – and the Black Death.

This week, I made my own little pilgrimage to 1, Highbury Place, North London, where Sickert ran his painting and engraving school in the 1920s and 1930s. He drew his initial full-size sketch for The Raising of Lazarus on the studio’s papered wall. After a brisk walk of twenty minutes or so, I was back at the Northern Line’s Angel Station. This is where Dorsoduro and Islington collided in my mind.

On the evening of 1st October, 1946, five minutes before six o’ clock, the driver of a Northern Line tube train was obliged to stop two hundred yards short of Angel Station. He saw ahead of him a large white dog, which began to trot towards the station. As the train followed slowly, through the next ten stops, the dog loped steadily ahead. As the train approached Clapham Common, the dog stopped at the side of the tunnel to let it pass. Then, as the train pulled out of the station, the dog jumped onto the platform, passed through the exit and up the escalator, and out into the street.

Professor Michael Gilmour, on the Huffpost Blog, declares himself an animal lover and dog owner, and explains in scholarly fashion that the dog in the Book of Tobit appears for each leg of the journey undertaken by Tobias and Raphael. In neither instance is the dog introduced or explained. Professor Gilmour entitles his post: “Is that Biblical Dog an Angel? “.

– sed magis est amica veritas

Isaac Newton apparently paraphrased a well-known Latin phrase traditionally ascribed to Plato when he said: “Plato is my friend- Aristotle is my friend – but my greatest friend is truth.”

I was walking away from Paxton & Whitfield at 93, Jermyn St, with my purchase of pungent Epoisses, when I learned from an LCC plaque at no. 87 that “Sir Isaac Newton 1642-1727 lived here”. Newton gave up the residence at the Tower of London accorded to him as Warden of the Royal Mint to live in this house. It may simply have attracted him as having the more salubrious environs of the western side of the city.

However, Newton lived in this street from 1696 to 1709. That was the year when Queen Anne made Samuel Clarke the Rector of St James’s Piccadilly, the church which has one side on Jermyn St. And when Newton died in 1727, Clarke was offered the place of Master of the Mint. In fact, Clarke was probably Newton’s most trusted confidant, and espoused the superiority of the Newtonian system over the Cartesian tradition.

Until I looked up these details, I will confess, I could have told you two things about Isaac Newton.

1. The young Isaac Newton was sitting in his garden when an apple fell on his head and he suddenly came up with his theory of gravity.

2. Later on, his dog Diamond accidentally set light to the manuscript he was working on, setting his work on gravity back by a year.

However, Newton also claimed that his dog (it’s not even clear that he ever kept a pet) discovered two theorems in a single morning. He added that “one had a mistake and the other had a pathological exception.”.

All this suggests to me that a great man can be a mathematician, astronomer, theologian and physicist, and still hone a good anecdote over time. His apple story , for instance, fitted with the idea of an Earth-shaped object being attracted to the Earth, while also having resonance with the Biblical account of the tree of knowledge.

Apple Tree Yard lies very close to Jermyn Street. Go on, make something of that.