arts, books, other reviews
ART FOR THE NATION
National Maritime Museum
17 Nov 2006-2 Sept 2007 Admission free
In an exhibition entitled Art for the Nation, the Maritime Museum has drawn from its own large and varied collection of paintings to ask, and sometimes to answer, some very interesting questions. What is maritime painting? What images does it seek to portray? What is its relevance today?
The exhibition, displayed in the magnificent rooms in the Queens House, Greenwich, starts with some of the paintings made by William Hodges, when he accompanied James Cooks second and third voyages to the Pacific in 1772-1780. Here is plein air painting (in the open, rather than in a studio) long before Constable and Turner practised it, and it fairly crackles with his excitement and effort to come to terms with the effects of light in such places as Easter Island - desolate and dramatic, and Tahiti - full of sunshine and beautiful tattooed maidens. This totally non-European world was a huge challenge to the eighteenth-century mind, and in these paintings the struggle to come to terms with it is made visible.
The Museum has been the recipient of a number of distinguished collections, and these are shown in separate rooms, to emphasize the underlying interests and aims of those who made them. The MacPherson collection is rich in Netherlandish paintings - domestic river scenes, designed to boost the awareness of the importance of their maritime trade, and ship portraits, commissioned by owners of specific vessels. Of special interest are those paintings with theological overtones - The Ship of State, quite a popular subject, is shown in a painting with the ship full of Roman Catholic prelates and royalty. Given the fervent anti-Catholicism of the Netherlands, the two mermaids in the foreground are clearly luring it and its crew to their doom. The Fall of Lucifer from Heaven is similarly replicated in a dramatic shipwreck below.
Ingram, a patriotic collector, was a patron of Van de Velde, father and son, also admired by Charles II, who granted them studio space in the Queens House. Their maritime paintings are splendid. Ingram also collected pictures with separate and complementary messages - a calm scene with a sunny sky and the same boat battling with the elements - salvation and peril.
The very large Caird collection forms the basis of the Museums holdings, and was designed, to use his own words, to be 'a Valhalla of our Maritime History'. This, and the Museums own paintings, make up the bulk of the exhibition. It includes paintings by Reynolds, Romney, Hogarth and Rigaud. The portraits are very varied. There are splendid establishment pieces by Reynolds, a wonderful painting by Hogarth of Captain Schomberg, showing him as a successful naval officer but also as a man of sensitivity and alert intelligence. An extraordinary painting of the Duke of York, later James II, as a Roman hero, in breastplate, bejewelled sandals, and trailing crimson cloak was controversial at the time, and strikes a bizarre note now - a statue of him in similar garb stands outside the National Gallery.
The importance of trade to a maritime nation is shown in a great variety of paintings. Two very large grisaille paintings (painted in shades of grey) by Backhuysen in the mid-seventeenth century show the city of Surat, with its busy port, harmonious mingling of native and European, and decorative addition of exotic animals. In another, much smaller, painting by Brooking, painted in the mid-eighteenth century, the whaling industry is portrayed in a lyrical northern landscape. There is no trace of blood or violence in this peaceful scene, with a couple of friendly polar bears looking on.
The Victorians, proud of their maritime heritage, painted large political paintings. Henry O'Neill's The Parting Cheer, is a commentary on emigration, its griefs and its hopes. The French painter Noel painted an essay in international goodwill in his vast Napoleon III receiving Queen Victoria on board the Bretagne - all flowery bonnets and fluttering ribbons.
Some of the most poignant paintings at the end of the exhibition were painted during the Second World War. One, of the evacuation of Dunkirk, by Eurich, shows the long lines of soldiers standing in the sea, while a large black cloud of destruction fills the sky behind them. Pictures painted in concentration camps - there is one by Worsley of the naval officers' mess in a camp, redolent of boredom and isolation. There are some splendid portraits of this period, with their subtext of confidence and courage, designed to fortify the morale of a war-torn nation.
This exhibition explores the complexity and depth of our maritime history - there is much to learn and enjoy.
THE BURY LOWRIE
Bury Art Gallery
We have become used to poverty in the English countryside, that is to say the poverty of the community set against considerable individual wealth. Pubs, shops, post offices, open ground, local rights of way, village halls, vicarages, all are vanishing at an alarming rate, while rich people move in, extend their private land and unconsciously add to the loss of community wealth. It is almost how the countryside defines itself these days.
We imagined, however, that the same remorseless decline was not a feature of our country's towns. Perhaps it is coming -the loss of a common wealth that was once part of the definition of what we meant by civilization.
I was in Bury on the morning of 17 November 2006 and went to the Art Gallery to find out how they were marking the sale of their Lowry painting. With so much contemporary art being about events/happenings, it seemed inevitable (and appropriate) that something would be made of this iconic occasion. Nothing. Only a dispirited but exquisitely diplomatic council employee, and a BCC radio reporter collecting local responses (all negative).
The famous Manchester artists A Riverbank was sold to an anonymous private collector for £1-4 million at Christies in London, the second highest sum ever paid for one of his works (and considerably more than the initial estimate). The council had bought it for £175 in 1951.
The money raised will be poured into the council's budget deficit, which is facing a £10 million shortfall this year. The Leader of the Council, Wayne Campbell, said the sale would have 'positive outcomes' for the people of Bury. He spoke earnestly to the media of the needs of 'vulnerable children.
One gallery custodian was almost in tears as he described the popularity of the painting with school groups, 'And the money was not even used for the gallery. What is to stop the sale of the next picture, and the next?' The money raised did no more than cover part of one year's deficit.
What makes such a sale of shared capital for immediate income, and the giving away of one's heritage for temporary cash flow, so depressing is that the justification is not without merit. It is always the case that 'vulnerable children are worth more than almost any single element of common wealth. However justified, it is a path to poverty that is deeply saddening. Now Bury Art Gallery does not even have a postcard or print of what was once the pride of their collection.
VIOLIN SONATAS Nos 1 & 3
Laurence Jackson (violin),
Ashley Wass (piano)
Naxos 8.557540, £5-99
It is fascinating to see how someone's outward appearance can be at variance with their inner character. Among composers consider the stiff, military aspect of Edward Elgar, almost certainly cultivated to protect his painful sensitivity. No less misleading was the figure of Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953). Photographs show a slim young man growing into a portly middle age, until the mature composer resembles the popular conception of a comfortable stockbroker with a fondness for whisky. Yet nothing could be more inaccurate. Bax called himself 'a brazen romantic,' and his music reveals the tumultuous emotions which seethed under his public persona. Almost everything about the external facts of his life fails to match the reality of his nature. Brought up in prosperous circumstances in Hampstead, financially secure all his life, a student at the Royal Academy of Music - what could prompt a man to be more conventional? But Bax was a highly complex individual, as the magnificent biography by Lewis Foreman makes clear. (A new edition of this book is to appear in 2007.) He was passionate, restless, gifted in literature as well as in music. The decisive event in his life was discovering the poetry of W.B. Yeats. Although he had no Celtic blood, the writing of Yeats opened a world of mystery, mythology and beauty to him and he was marked by this discovery ever after. He went often to Ireland, wrote poetry under an Irish pseudonym, learned Gaelic, and mixed with notable Irish figures. In later life he frequently journeyed to Scotland, staying near Loch Morar to work on his music.
Perhaps it was Bax's unassuming demeanour, as much as his ability, which earned him appointment as Master of the King's Music - a post for which he must have been the most unlikely occupant ever. Certainly his private life would not have commended him. His marriage foundered because of his passionate affair with the pianist Harriet Cohen, for a long time his mistress, and his years of eminence were shared with another devoted woman to whom he was not married. After his death his music fell from favour but is now finding a new audience.
This, then, is the man whose violin sonatas are recorded by Naxos, who have done sterling work on Bax's behalf, and a fine disc it is. Of the two sonatas the First is a relatively early work, and Bax subsequently revised it, replacing its original second and third movements which here are recorded separately. The Bax style is already apparent - highly personal and Romantic but with real muscle. (None of the musical doodling of Delius here.) The Second Sonata is a product of Bax's mid-forties, and is much more austere. Repeated hearings are necessary before this work begins to reveal fully its qualities. The sonatas are given excellent and committed performances, with Laurence Jackson's warm tone a joy to hear. Moreover, both players have the instinct for flexible tempi which is as essential in performance of Bax's music as it is in Elgar's.
I have one cautionary word, however. For those not familiar with Bax's work, I suggest that this recording (like all his chamber music) is not the place to begin. Naxos has given us a magnificent cycle of his seven symphonies, played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under David Lloyd-Jones, imaginatively coupled with his superb tone poems. Whatever hesitations one may have about specific details of interpretation this is an outstanding achievement. If you want new music to explore over Christmastide, begin with these symphonies. Numbers Three and Four have immediate appeal. Number Six, with its pounding opening inspired by the sea (as so often with Bax) was the work which introduced me to his music nearly forty years ago. Keep number Seven, surely the most elusive of the symphonies, to the last. Turn to the chamber music after this. Bax is a difficult composer to pigeonhole, which is an indication of his quality. How appropriate it seems that only twenty-four hours after hearing a performance of his tone poem The Garden of Fand - another Celtic-inspired seascape - he died suddenly in Ireland, where he is buried.
ENGLAND'S ABBEYS MONASTIC BUILDINGS AND CULTURE
English Heritage, 216pp, hbk 185074 944 2, £19-99
Anybody who explores the English countryside will know that it is dotted with the remains of various medieval abbeys, priories, friaries and other religious houses, nearly all of which had been destroyed by King Henry VIII at the Reformation in the sixteenth century. There are some parts where they are very thick on the ground. Many readers will know the area around Walsingham in Norfolk where there is not only the Augustinian Priory at Walsingham that housed the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, but also the Friary in the same village. Binham Priory is only a few miles away, where the old priory church is used as the parish church. You can find the few ruins of Creake Priory which closed some while before the Reformation because of the plague, and you do not have to go far to find the extensive ruins of Castleacre Priory to the south, and the few vestiges of Weybourne to the north-east. These are continual reminders of what must have been some of the glories of medieval England.
This beautiful book, produced in hardback by English Heritage, does not just describe the architecture involved, of which, lets face it, there is not much left. It is a summary, amply illustrated in colour, of the history of the monastic movement in this country and of the way of life of those monks, friars and nuns who inhabited these now wistful and mysterious places. There is information on the use to which various parts of the buildings were put, like the scriptorium and chapter house, as well as the dormitory and refectory. There is a gazetteer at the end that lists two hundred and ninety of the thousand or so sites in the country. The author makes it plain that this is only a selection of the great total and there are many omissions. However, those sites administered by English Heritage naturally predominate.
The summary of the history of English monasticism that forms the main part of the book is very readable, in a style accessible to the non-academic. The development in Saxon England from the time of St Augustine is covered, as is the full flowering in the centuries following the Norman Conquest in 1066, with the great abbeys growing in size and influence. These were nearly all of Benedictine origin, some stemming from the great Abbey of Cluny in France and its particular Cluniac system; and others from the later reform instigated by the Cistercians, who set up those grand and austere buildings in remote places like Fountains, Jervaux, Rievaulx and Tintern, all built within a short period in the twelfth century.
These latter, in particular, became great commercial enterprises, setting the English wool trade up to be the powerful force it became. Included are the houses of the purely English order of the Gilbertines, founded in 1131 by St Gilbert of Sempringham, in Lincolnshire. There were twenty-four of these houses throughout England, none of them very big. They followed the unusual Gilbertine pattern of being mixed communities for men and women, with the Choir of the church divided down the middle by a wall, so that the brothers and sisters could not see the other sex opposite, but they could all, by turning east, see the altar at Mass.
The Black Death of the middle part of the fourteenth century dealt the monasteries a heavy blow, cutting their overall population considerably. Cultural changes in the country also meant that rich benefactors were not so inclined to found more monastic institutions. The tendency became to fund collegiate foundations where smaller numbers of priests living in common were paid stipends to do educational work as well as their regular liturgical worship. The colleges of Oxford and Cambridge are examples of this, as are the Colleges of Eton and Winchester for secondary education, as well as little gems like the Priory Church of Edington in Wiltshire.
The way of life of monks and nuns is described in some detail, covering the variations from Order to Order; and there is a charming modern drawing of a supposed convent refectory with nuns enjoying their dinner, with one of them reading from a pulpit, as was the custom.
The sad tale of the Dissolution by Henry VIII from 1530 is outlined: how the smaller houses went first, and then the great houses like Glastonbury, St Edmundsbury and Reading. We are fortunate compared with France, for instance, that some of the churches remain, either turned into parish churches, like Binham in Norfolk and Abbey Dore in Herefordshire, as well as the great treasures like Malvern Priory, Sherborne Abbey, Wimborne Minster and others. As well as that, those monasteries that administered cathedrals retained their church buildings, like Canterbury, Norwich, Rochester and others, while Gloucester, Bristol and Oxford became new cathedrals, changing, like the other monastic cathedrals, into collegiate foundations. Other cathedrals that were run by collegiate foundations of Canons, like Salisbury, Chichester, Wells, Hereford and others, were left virtually unchanged. Of the rest, the stones went to local building projects and, it is pointed out, the Franciscan and Dominican Friaries were nearly all in big towns and so their remains are the scantiest of the lot. Remote sites like Tintern and Fountains lost far less.
PSALMS FOR LIFE
SPCK, 400pp, pbk 028105844X, £14-99
Almost any book which recalls the Psalms to the attention of church people is to be welcomed. Looking at the worship provided for many congregations today, you would scarcely credit that these ancient songs have been at the heart of the Church's devotion from the beginning. Too often in a Sunday Parish Mass, the Gradual Psalm before the Gospel is replaced by a hymn. Too often clergy are not reciting the Daily Office in church and encouraging the faithful to join with them in prayer and in the recitation of the Psalms. Too often our cathedrals, which traditionally have been guardians of the dignified singing of Evening Prayer, are paring down psalmody to a shameful extent. Only this past summer I attended Evensong in one of our historic cathedrals to find the psalmody reduced to a beggarly six verses - and this when the singing of the Psalter to Anglican chant has been one of the glories of our musical and spiritual heritage.
It must be admitted that contemporary lectionaries do not always help by reducing psalmody to user-friendly portions. It must also be admitted that those who wish to turn to the psalms in worship or private devotion can be uncertain about which translation to use. Most cathedrals adhere (at least for Evensong) to the Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer, which has the advantage of being written in beautiful and memorable English but also the shortcoming of some obscurity. Many of us must have wondered what earthly (let alone heavenly) meaning can be contained in the Prayer Books version of Psalm 2.12 - 'Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and so ye perish from the right way: if his wrath be kindled (yea, but a little), blessed are all they that put their trust in him', though this is a literal reading of the difficult Hebrew original. Then there is the familiar problem with 'one day in thy courts: is better than a thousand' [Ps. 84.10], which creates needless misunderstanding.
A further difficulty is that a number of the Psalms, or parts of them, grate unpleasantly on Christian sensibilities. 'Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children: and throweth them against the stones' [Ps. 137.9] may express well the frustration of the exiles in Babylon, but how can a Christian calmly recite such words in public?
However, the Psalms are central to Christian tradition, and the important thing is to encourage their intelligent use, whether in church or in private. John Eaton provides reflections on every one of the Psalms to assist the reader to meditate on these texts in a contemporary way.
He has done a good job, providing just enough background to put a Psalm into its historical context and then suggesting what it might mean for us today. He also does his best to give an acceptable interpretation to
those verses which are decidedly unpleasant. The trouble with this approach, however, is that inevitably what is written is his thoughts, which may not be what the Spirit might suggest as a consequence of my meditation, or yours, upon a Psalm. Furthermore, it can be distracting when you find yourself in disagreement with him on a question of fact.
This happened for me at the very beginning of the book, in his writing on Psalm 1. Talking about musical performance from memory, he writes, 'the fact is that the player can only be one with the music when memorization is perfected.' Those of us who can remember Clifford Curzon, or even Myra Hess, playing a concerto sublimely with the score in front of them know that this is nonsense. It does not greatly affect the truth he wishes to convey, that the words of the Psalms, and of Scripture generally, ought to be living in our memories from constant use, but it is an unfortunate illustration. Also, in his desire to speak to a present day audience, the tone of the writing comes too close to the folksy for this reviewer's taste.
If the book leads the reader to use the Psalms meditatively and prayerfully, it will have achieved the author's purpose. However, personal needs differ, and for myself I should prefer a short guide to the historical background and content of the Psalms, and then to be left to turn them over peacefully in my own mind and heart.
SCM Press, 288pp, hbk 0 334 04041 8, £19-99
First the Bishops, then the Deans, now we have a book on the Canons from Trevor Beeson to add to his portraits of Church of England notables. It is in some ways an odd selection of history's cathedral dignitaries. For example, more than enough has been written about the tiresome Sydney Smith, without his being given space here. Charles Kingsley, too, has been well discussed elsewhere, though perhaps his presence can be justified on the ground that writers on John Henry Newman rarely do Kingsley justice when dealing with his foolish attack on the famous convert. There was more to him than that unfortunate incident might suggest. (Beeson manages to get wrong the date of Newman's final departure from the Church of England.)
Again, does Dr Pusey merit a place in this volume? Certainly he was a Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, by virtue of being the Regius Professor of Hebrew, but it is not his fulfilling of his duties as a canon which makes him a major figure in Victorian church history.
It should be added that while Beesons treatment of Pusey is not intentionally unfair, he relies far too much on the view of David Forrester in his book Young Dr Pusey, an interpretation of Pusey which has done unjustified harm to his reputation and which is open to serious questioning. The old legend is trotted out here that Pusey 'came to believe it wrong to smile or to delight in nature,' which is demonstrably untrue. Also, Beeson tells us that Pusey 'went sometimes to a house in Ascot, close to a convent with which he was associated.' The house, where Pusey died, was the Hermitage in the grounds of Ascot Priory, home to the Society of the Most Holy Trinity to which Pusey gave such devoted support and guidance as to earn him almost the title of co-founder. He deserves better than this.
The puzzlement continues as we look at other names. If a nineteenth-century canon was needed for study, why not the truly impressive Robert Gregory of St Paul's, a man who certainly merits renewed attention for his labours there? Why a chapter on the frankly unpleasant (at least on the evidence given here) John Shirley of Canterbury? James Wilson, however, deserves a place. Multi-faceted and energetic, though no theologian, he did good work as a headmaster and later as a canon of Worcester where he was cathedral Librarian; but how can Beeson have overlooked Wilson's remarkable friendship with Dame Laurentia McLachlan, the scholarly and redoubtable Abbess of Stanbrook, or have omitted to mention that one of Wilson's sons was the distinguished singer and administrator, Sir Steuart Wilson? He also states incorrectly that Wilson's second wife died in the same year as her husband. She died in the year he retired from his canonry
Perhaps all this is breaking a butterfly on the wheel, because the aim of The Canons is that of good quality journalism, and there are rewards from looking into the book as well as grounds for adverse criticism. The chapter on Max Warren is a timely reminder of the excellence of the Evangelical Anglican tradition before it became besmirched with American-style fundamentalism and fanaticism. It is a joy to read again of the nearly fifty years of heroic work done by Peter Green in the slums of Salford, for forty of those years combining that burden (by his own wish) with a Residentiary Canonry of Manchester Cathedral. It is good to remember how WH. Van-stone resisted all attempts to lure him into academe and instead applied his first-class mind to hammering out a distinctive and inspiring theology while serving in a difficult northern parish. The pity was that by the time he came to Chester Cathedral as a canon his original work was done. Among the other names, Geoffrey Lampe, John Collins and Alec Vidler also make stimulating appearances.
It must be confessed that reading this collection of pieces leads to melancholy reflections. In its cathedral canonries, as in its small rural parishes, the Church of England has had the extraordinary good fortune to possess places where her quiet and scholarly clergy could be satisfactorily placed, combining their study and reflection with pastoral duties. (Whether they always took advantage of those privileges of a canonry is another matter.) In recent years the CofE, with her unsurpassed genius for getting things wrong, has bundled the parishes together into unmanageable groups and, thanks to the Cathedrals Measure, mortgaged the canonries to diocesan jobs, making many residentiary posts subject to time-specific contracts which ensure that older, experienced priests are unlikely to accept them. In addition, looking at the assortment of strong personalities which fills Trevor Beeson's pages, one cannot help wondering whether, in today's timorous, self-absorbed and bureaucracy-ridden church, such men would be considered for canonries. For that matter, would they even get so far as ordination training?
ANGLICANS IN ROME
Canterbury Press, 160pp, pbk 185311 745 5, £16-99
It may seem strange to see a bit of recent Anglican history written by a Roman Catholic priest, but such is this account of the Anglican presence and representation in Rome. There has been some Anglican presence in Rome since 1816, the year after Waterloo, when an English congregation started worshipping in a chapel in what was known as the Granary. This developed into the building of the American church of St Paul-within-the-walls in 1869, consecrated in 1876, and the building of the English church of All Saints, completed in 1886. These two churches were intended for American and English Anglicans living in Rome but were, nonetheless, the first signs of the ecumenical breakthrough of later years.
The book outlines the development of the Anglican Communion from the Reformation to the present day, with all the present traumas succinctly described. The early attempts at ecumenical relations, with the Malines conversations and the efforts of Dom Gregory Dix in the earlier part of the twentieth century, are summarized with an acknowledgement that English Roman Catholics were far less inclined to encourage this sort of thing than their continental brethren, particularly the French.
The great developments of the last few decades began with the visit of Archbishop Fisher to Pope John XXIII in December 1960. From then came a tide of activity, set off by the appointment of Canon Bernard Pawley of Ely, and later Canterbury, as an Anglican representative in Rome, and the ground-breaking work of Bishop John Moorman of Ripon. Fortunately, Canon Pawley and his wife Margaret were able to become particularly friendly with Cardinal Montini, who subsequently became Pope Paul VI. The Cardinal had always been interested in establishing ecumenical dialogue and proved to be a valuable friend to Anglicanism during his pontificate. Subsequent visits to Rome have been made by Archbishop Ramsay in 1966, when he opened the original Anglican Centre, Archbishops Coggan and Runcie, Carey and, now, Rowan Williams to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the setting-up of the Anglican Centre.
Even more important have been the reports produced by the Anglican and Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), set up in 1966 to be a long-term dialogue between the two Communions. These have proved very valuable and have produced far more agreement on theological points than might have seemed possible at an earlier stage. This has led to the complicated title of a new body set up in 2001, the International Anglican Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM). This is to work towards various levels of practical co-operation rather than the purely theological discussions of ARCIC. This has taken place despite the obvious block put on any future hopes of intercommunion by the Church of England, and other parts of the Anglican Communion, insisting on going ahead with the ordination of women despite the obvious severance with any Catholic Order.
The process of healing the breaches with Rome over the last forty years has been a remarkable achievement compared with the frosty atmosphere that used to prevail before. Students come and go, Romans studying Anglicanism at the Centre, Anglicans studying Roman ways at the English College; all this is chronicled here. There are illustrations, but it is sad that the photograph of Canon Pawley and his wife is so tiny, because they were important people in the story and had a tremendous, ground-breaking part to play.
Macmillan, 584pp, hbk 14050 5048 9, £16-99
This is Sansom's third novel of Reformation England. This one is set in York at the time of Henry VIII's Progress to the north in 1541 with his young queen, Catherine Howard, intending to re-establish royal power after the insurrection of the Pilgrimage of Grace.
What a brutal and uncertain time the Reformation must have been. The value of fiction is not that it supplies any new facts (and the plot here is unnecessarily complicated, seeking to incorporate too many historical facts into the flow of the narrative) but that it provides a backdrop against which one can test ones own reactions and emotions to what has been learned of a distant age and culture.
Sansom is especially good when he is evoking the atmosphere of fear and distrust - the main characters imprisonment in the Tower of London after a long sea voyage from Hull is vivid and horribly memorable. He describes well the arrival of the armed Tudor southerners in an unhappy and over-taxed north. He does not, however, fully explain the attraction of Tudor power and why so many, even in the north, responded to strong political leadership against the old social order.
What he does best is evoke the sheer awfulness of Henrys reign, the sense of despair at the passing of secure institutions, the utter helplessness in the face of new money and amoral power, the relentless gloom and depression of cold, wet summers - it's still grim up north. One difficulty, however, is that if so many people prove unsympathetic at a time of deep social upheaval, such nastiness can affect everyone. I am not sure that anyone, the lawyer hero included, comes over as pleasant enough to warm to.
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