views, reviewsand previews
ALBERT AND VICTORIAART AND LOVE
Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace 19 March–31 October
Admission £8.50 (ticket can be reused for one year at the gallery)
ONE OF the problems of writing for a monthly magazine is that copy deadlines don’t always fit in with the rest of the world. By the time you read this article there will be some very interesting exhibitions on in London, the Royal Academy’s ‘Treasures from Budapest’, Raphael’s cartoons and tapestries for the Sistine Chapel at the V&A to name but two. But, as I write, the autumn season has not quite begun and there is not much which is current which will be around for October. Fortunately two interesting shows will be, and by chance both are an easy walk from Victoria Station.
The first is the recently opened permanent exhibition of ‘Treasures of Westminster Cathedral’. When I went (11 o’clock on a Thursday morning) the staff could not have been kinder, but there could have been more of them and I had to wait until there were enough on duty before they were able to open up. But it was no hardship sitting in the cathedral, listening to the choir singing Fauré’s Requiem.
When it is open the exhibition is beautifully displayed. In the main room, there are some fine vestments, notably a white chasuble belonging to Cardinal Archpriest Edward Henry Howard and a cope of Cardinal Manning, possibly worn at the First Vatican Council. There are a number of chalices including one given by Pope John Paul II and one from the seventeenth century whose plainness is witness to the times of persecution. Among the monstrances there is a very large one in a mix of Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau styles, with bulging amethysts and St Francis and St Clare, both of whom seem slightly out of place in such grand surroundings. There are also relics and crosses and what looks like a truncheon carried by a member of the cathedral’s equivalent of the CBS. The outside lobby has photographs of the construction of the cathedral and a large model of the cathedral.
This is not a large exhibition and £5 is not cheap for two small rooms. But the Treasury in Notre Dame in Paris is not much better and not as well displayed. Just around the corner from the Cathedral, the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace is showing ‘Victoria and Albert: Art and Love’. The royal couple were not high-minded connoisseurs. Albert’s largest haul of paintings, a hundred late medieval paintings from the von OettingenWallerstein collection, were collateral to a loan. Twenty-five of them were given to the National Gallery when the collection failed to sell on the open market. But it is through Albert that the most interesting paintings in this show came to Britain – the first Duccio to be brought to the UK, and Cranach the Elder’s ‘Apollo and Diana’. But these aren’t really the point of the exhibition. What we come to see is what the couple bought for each other, or were given.
This is made clear at the outset. The staircase up to the exhibition has on either side twelve gilt-bronze statues of former rulers of Bavaria, a birthday present from Albert to Victoria. Her presents to him were just as subtle. They include a charming portrait of herself almost en déshabille, and a gilt Lady Godiva. Other portraits show the buxom young queen looking up into Albert’s whiskers. But the relationship was not an equal one. Not only did Victoria have a lot more jewels – off-cuts from the Koh-i-noor are on display – there is a revealing note about her purchase of Leighton’s ‘Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna Carried through the Streets of Florence’ – she bought it because Albert just had to have it.
Family mattered to Victoria, almost to a religious degree. Just off the gallery’s first room there is a case of arms and hands taken from casts of sleeping royal babies and children – it is a chaste version of the reliquaries on show at the Cathedral. Actual religion itself plays very little part amongst the bling. A watercolour shows the original Buckingham Palace chapel, described by Victoria as suitably ‘grave’ – it is a severe red and white room with massive plate on the holy table and nothing else. Just as indicative of the royal take on religion is the ‘lily font’, a small portable font used at the always private royal baptisms from Victoria’s day until the present. The regal spirituality is summed up by Winterhalter’s ‘The First of May 1851’. Here in a deliberate echo of an Adoration of the Magi the Duke of Wellington kneels before the Queen and his godson, Prince Albert.
However, any troubling undercurrents there might be are undercut by the silliness and vulgarity of the more worldly exhibits, especially an Indian throne from the Great Exhibition. My own favourites were household goods from the Balmoral hunting lodge, every surface a display of biscuit tin Scottishness. The most splendid of these items is a settee made up of shocking green fabric held together by antlers and hooves. It must have been a nightmare trying to navigate around this attention-seeking object without catching the wide court dresses of the day on the points of slaughtered deer. There is one example of those dresses on show, a real fancy dress worn by Victoria, with exquisite lace and well-preserved Benares silks. Near the dress is one of the few times Albert got to play king, recorded in Winterhalter’s picture of the royal couple as Edward III and Queen Philippa. The painting and the dress show a continuing royal passion for dressing up (remember ‘It’s a Royal Knock-out’?). Further continuity over the generations is hinted at by huge table decorations festooned with horses and dogs.
When I went the show was in its sixth month and very well attended; all the rooms that is, save the last. The items here relate to the death of Albert. Despite some of the grossness of what has gone before, this room is genuinely touching. You couldn’t say the taste was pitch perfect, but the feeling of loss is palpable. A very human show.
T.S. ELIOT AND CHRISTIANITY
Barry Spurr Lutterworth Press, £25
978 0 7188 3073 1
LET ME begin with a grouse and get it out of the way. This is a well produced book on an important subject. It has a pleasing typeface and helpful illustrations. It is a scholarly work, and its notes are many and valuable. Why, then, has the publisher decided that few readers will wish to peruse the notes, which have been placed together at the end of the main text? I grant that this is nowadays a frequent offence on the part of publishers, but there is not the smallest justification for it, and in this case the result is more than usually irritating as the reader is forced again and again to abandon the page being studied in order to chase up a reference. If the book is reprinted then the notes must go where they should be – at the foot of the page.
With my moan voiced, let me repeat that this is a significant study. Too often Eliot’s Christian faith has been treated by critics as an embarrassing and inexplicable eccentricity to be brushed aside. The merit of Professor Spurr’s work is to show us that a religious quest was central to Eliot’s development as a man and a writer. Leaving behind the Unitarianism of his upbringing, Eliot followed a path through philosophy and acquaintance with world religions before finding his home in the Church of England. Specifically, he called himself ‘an anglo-catholic in religion.’ As this book shows, he lived out his Christian faith with commitment and discipline, and sometimes at real cost to himself.
The author charts Eliot’s spiritual development in detail. He does outstanding work in showing how Eliot’s faith shaped his poetry and his prose. Even readers familiar with the Christian reference found in the poetry, plays and essays will find deeper satisfaction in them as a result of Professor Spurr’s interpretation, notably in his pages on Ash Wednesday. He also reminds us of Eliot’s social criticism, that part of his legacy which is anathema to contemporary secular liberal opinion, but which needs to be heard again. No less valuable is Eliot’s attack on the disintegration of the English language, something which he thought was being assisted even by the Church. His savaging of the New English Bible (does anyone remember that misguided effort now?) provides a warning when any attempt is made to translate scripture into ‘contemporary’ English:
To make a more intelligible translation should mean to make a translation which can be understood by those capable of understanding; it should not mean, but might easily slip into meaning, to make a translation which is easy to understand.
If the Church re-writes its Bible and its liturgies to conform with every successive stage of the deterioration of the language, the prospect is gloomy. For the speech of ‘our people’ is not only ‘threadbare’, but incapable of expressing exact and subtle thought.
The banalities too frequently offered by the Church of England in her contemporary liturgies justify Eliot’s concern, and one has little reason to hope that the forthcoming Roman Missal will provide better fare.
This is a rewarding book, but I have a small reservation. Although Eliot called himself an anglo-catholic (lower case), I am not sure that Professor Spurr is always clear what is meant by the term. To be sure, such a protean expression is difficult to pin down. The author is correct about the features which distinguish Anglo-Catholicism from the Evangelical and Broad Church outlook, but he does not recognize sufficiently that there has always been a school in the C of E which we might call Catholic Anglican or Prayer Book Catholic, as firmly committed to a Catholic understanding of the Church, the Sacraments and Episcopacy as is that approach usually termed AngloCatholic, but without the ritualistic and Romanizing emphases of the latter. To give an example, the author implies that the Reservation of the Sacrament is a practice which identifies AngloCatholic churches, which is simply not the case. Also, for reasons unclear to me, the author sometimes places the term Reservation in quotation marks, giving it an undesirably arch connotation. There are other places where we are led to believe that an opinion or custom is Anglo-Catholic, when it is something which has characterised High Church observance since at least the Caroline Divines. These points in no way diminish the value of the book, but they sometimes make its focus a little fuzzy.
However, we must give Professor Spurr a vote of hearty thanks. He challenges literary scholars to revise their understanding of Eliot, in the process correcting a substantial number of errors and misconceptions. He enlarges our appreciation of individual works by Eliot and of his achievement as a whole. He also challenges Anglicans to look again at the very English Catholicism which Eliot embraced, and upon which he built the greater part of his life. It is humbling to be shown the intensity of Eliot’s Christian commitment, his painful sense of his part in the sinfulness of the human condition, and his steady pursuit of goodness. How sad that at the end of this valuable book one is left reflecting that the Catholic vision which inspired Eliot is one which the Church of England’s contemporary representatives seem wholeheartedly intent on repudiating, insofar as they understand it at all.
Barry A. Orford
The Life of Harold Macmillan D.R. Thorpe
Chatto & Windus, hbk, 879pp
GOOD ALL-ROUNDERS are getting rarer in our specialized world. To rise to the highest office in the land you have to tick more boxes than most. Harold Macmillan ticked boxes in the worlds of the university, commerce, the military and religion. His politics were liberal yet conservative, rebel yet loyalist. He was a crofter’s great-grandson yet his father-in-law was a duke. Possessing all these qualities guarantees personal complexity and an interesting biography.
Constitutional historian D.R. Thorpe’s Supermac is close on the heels of Charles Williams’ 2009 biography but it is a fuller and more revealing work. Thorpe has written previous biographies of Tory politicians and the authority he bears expresses itself in bibliography and notes that make up a third of his magnum opus.
Great men and women are usually people who have suffered. In this way their humanity appeals through the braving of fear. Macmillan’s courage was forged in the trenches of the First World War and a near death experience in the Second World War. His family life was traumatic but he braved humiliation, sticking it seems to Christian principle and refusing to contemplate divorce. The courage he possessed made him his own man. He stood alone in cabinet when he told the aged Churchill his days as Prime Minister needed to end. Macmillan even dared to suggest to Pope Pius XII he would serve Christian unity by recognizing the orders of Anglican priests – to be received by silence!
His brilliant intellect made him too clever for some, including Churchill, who saw him as an opinionated subordinate. Macmillan saw his undergraduate reading parties as the very anticipation of heaven. Throughout his life his work was energized by his reading times. His experience at the sharp end of things did something to redeem his cerebral tendency but a negative image persisted. His Labour political opponent Aneurin Bevan saw him as a poseur. Bevan concluded cruelly that having watched the man carefully for years ‘behind that Edwardian countenance there is nothing’. His fellow Tory rival Butler was kinder and saw two sides to him, ‘the soft heart for and the strong determination to help the underdog, and the social habit to associate happily with the overdog’.
Harold Macmillan’s life spans the twentieth century. His first memories from his Chelsea childhood were of the pervasive smell of horses and the sound of the blacksmith at work. D.R. Thorpe describes the strong influence of his American mother, Nellie, and the muscular Christianity he imbibed that mellowed later in an Anglo- Catholicism born through the influence of his mentor Ronnie Knox. After the 1914–18 war he married Lady Dorothy Cavendish, whose unfaithfulness to him with Bob Boothby has been well chronicled. Dorothy kept up appearances, a stolid politician’s wife seeing Harold elected as MP in Stockton and then Bromley. She stood by him through a political ascent after war service in the Mediterranean to Minister of Housing, Minister of Defence, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Prime Minister from 1957 to1963.
Two phrases applauding his stewardship as premier are, on the domestic front, ‘You’ve never had it so good’, and on foreign affairs, ‘The winds of change’, the heading for a speech encouraging Africa to shake off its colonial yoke. Two negatives cited are the 1945 repatriation of Cossacks to their execution in Russia and the 1956 Suez crisis. Like any successful politician Macmillan seized the ‘glittering prizes offered those who have stout hearts and sharp swords’ (F.E. Smith). His wit is captured well in this expansive book. Interrupted in a speech by Khruschev banging his shoe on the table at the United Nations he looks up and says quietly, ‘Well, I would like it translating if you would.’ Unveiling a bronze of Mrs Thatcher at the Carlton Club he makes an audible stage whisper, ‘Now I must remember that I am unveiling a bust of Margaret Thatcher, not Margaret Thatcher’s bust.’ On a trip to Russia, told ‘dobry den’ means ‘good day’ he regales everyone with the words ‘double gin’!
My own interest in Macmillan is fuelled by having a similar shade of Christian conviction as well as by serving as priest in the parish of Horsted Keynes where he worshipped and is now buried. D.R. Thorpe provides several anecdotes of local interest, like his persuading one of my predecessors to change the lesson he read the Sunday Churchill died to ‘let us now praise famous men’. Thorpe indicates Macmillan possessed a clear sense of divine providence working through the historical events that propelled his career and the illness that saved his addressing the prime ministerial succession. To his Christian sensibilities we owe the appointment of two of the Church of England’s most famous twentieth-century clerics, Michael Ramsey and Mervyn Stockwood.
D.R. Thorpe writes of Macmillan’s observation on the self-preoccupation that has grown up in the wake of the decline in Christian allegiance. He ends the book quoting his call to ‘restore and strengthen the moral and spiritual as well as the material’, rather countering the materialist ‘you’ve never had it so good’ association of his subject.
Supermac is a good read in both senses, well written and in its length, though this and the detail are not overwhelming since the author’s narrative keeps a human interest all through. It is very favourable to the subject but does not skirt round negative perceptions of the man.
The Revd Dr John Twisleton Rector of St Giles, Horsted Keynes
The Common Life of the Secular Clergy Jerome Bertram
Gracewing, 316pp, pbk
978 0 85244 201 2, £15.99
IT WOULD be all too easy for an Anglican to ask, ‘Why should I trouble to read this Roman Catholic book?’ There are several reasons why one should. It is not so long ago in the history of the Church since we were one, and we should be looking forward to a time when we shall be one again. The history presented here is our history. The book is informative, clearly written and argued, with a few touches of humour and some of what sounds to me like anger; and it says things I have been waiting years to hear some clergyman say.
The author is a priest at the Oxford Oratory of St Philip Neri, and his book is a history of such communities from their beginnings to the present time, their many vicissitudes and their ability to rise again when fallen from favour with their Church or persecuted by the State in various countries – and not excluding acknowledgement of various rivalries, jealousies and faults, quite noticeably the temptations of simony and concubinage.
This continuous process of reform and amendment is suggested in the book as the Church’s undergoing repeated self-examination and renewal, at no time more than the present, when media coverage of every newsworthy fall from grace paints a picture of wholesale evil. One of the themes of the book is the reversal of the excessive liberalism encouraged by the Second Vatican Council and an increasingly strict line on orthodoxy and the life of clergy; though most Roman Catholic priests must be entirely blameless and obedient.
I get ahead of myself, however. The book opens with an excellent section on definitions. Early in the life of the Church the movement towards a life of devoted contemplation and prayer, withdrawn from the world, drew men to solitude in the desert, first as hermits and later in communities. This, though, is not the sort of community that Fr Bertram deals with, although it is inevitably touched on a good deal. The vita communis is not the monastic life as might be expected by the ‘general reader’ It is the communal life of ‘lay clergy’, a term that we are told was complained of as paradoxical as long ago as the eleventh century, but, as the author says, it is too late to change it now.
The salient difference between monks and lay clergy is that monks (who are, in any case, largely ‘lay’) take vows of charity, chastity and obedience and live their lives monastically, in prayer and contemplation: lay clergy are priests and minor clergy who take no vows, but live in charity, chastity (or in the case of minor clerics who have been previously married, continence) and obedience, living in communal accommodation with shared meals, and take the liturgy, education, health care and relief of poverty to the people. If this is not a clear distinction (and it is not easy in all cases to make the distinction) patient reading of the book will reveal further complications, from place to place and from time to time.
The long history becomes particularly interesting for me at the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. In the first the author sees the propaganda against the Church and its forms of community as of economic rather than genuinely theological motivation. The dissolution of all forms of religious communities by Henry VIII was a means of drawing Church wealth and property into his own hands and those of a corrupt aristocracy, to the detriment of the common people, who had derived great benefit from them particularly during the High Middle Ages.
In Italy the two great families, the Borjas (Spanish spelling) and the Medici became rich by usury, violence and influence – even over Popes – advancing the usurious banking system which he sees as being at the root of our modern financial and business empires, ‘the rich and powerful banding together with the capitalists to oppose these reforms’ - reforms being undertaken by the Church itself. This malign influence operated to overrule the Papacy in the interests of capital and riches, until a weakened Court of Rome became incapable of defence against the revolt of Germany and Switzerland.
Fr Bertram is outspoken against the rise of the banking system and the prevalence of usury, which had always been denounced by the Church as ‘a crime against God and man’. I do not believe that the Church of England will ever take such a firm line; though some of its members do so from time to time (e.g. C.S. Lewis). That it needs to be taken seriously can hardly be denied by Christians (and others) who note carefully the series of engineered economic crises such as the one we are experiencing now.
The rise of the Enlightenment, culminating in the French Revolution and the spread of its ideas over Europe, brought not only an impoverishment of the people and street vagrancy to many clergy but a new attitude to religion, which was now perceived as allowable only in so far as it was socially useful. That is, the Church was to be a tool of the State. Communities of prayer and communities of mission, liturgical worship and service of the people were almost eliminated.
The last section of the book details the persistent reappearance and reforming of institutions of the Common Life and the Secular Clergy perhaps seen as a counterbalance to the evil forces now, as always, at work in the world, and makes suggestions for a traditional organisation or Rule for communities of secular canons in terms appropriate to our times.
LOST CAPITAL OF BYZANTIUM: THE HISTORY OF MISTRAL ANDTHE PELOPENESE
Stephen Runmciman Tauris Parke Paperbacks 978 1 84511 895 2 £9.99
reissue of a classic of its kind will be welcome to every lover of Greece and all those with an interest in the bye-ways of Byzantine history. The aftermath, in the Pelopenese, of the Frankish conquest of Constantinople is a fascinating kaleidoscope of petty princedoms and intense family feuds. The same can be said of the Palaeologus and Cantacuzenus families who retook the territory. All lived out under the gathering storm clouds of increasing Turkish power.
Runciman tells a story well, of course – though here without the purple passages of his famous account of the fall of the City. He gives something for everyone: a helter-skelter of political history; an archeological guide to the remains of a remarkable city; a portrait of the intellectual life of what became, faut de mieux, the capital of Byzantine scholarship.
The death throes of the Roman Empire (Muslims called the rulers of Byzantium to its final days the Caliphs of Rum) remains topical in a time when anger about the Crusades seems to consume the young of the Muslim world. They seem blissfully unaware that the blatant aggression of Omar and his successors destroyed a Christian culture in the very lands which they now claim for their own. The history of the late flowering of Byzantine culture gives the lie to any simplistic view of the clash between East and West – between Islam and Chrisitianity. It was, after all Byzantine mosaicists who decorated the Dome of the Rock and Isidoros of Miletos who invented the forms and structures which Sinan brought to perfection.
The churches of Mistra, looking out across the Vale of Sparta, are still some of the most evocative remains of that vanished civilization – sketched by Edward Lear, but for long deserted except by a few impoverished nuns. To learn about them is to want to visit them, or visit them again. And Stephen Runciman is the ideal companion for such an expedition; scholarly, urbane, discerning, readable. ND
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