Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Van Eyck and Rossetti


Reflections, the current exhibition at the National Gallery refocusses attention on the PRB’s original impulse and choice of name, invoking artists before Raphael, who in the 1840s were commonly designated ‘Italian Primitives’ and not regarded of great worth.  Hence much of the contempt heaped on  PRB pictures for their glaring faults in composition and treatment, harking back to unsophisticated art of the distant past..   The dividing line between primitive and progressive, or ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’, was fixed at 1500, insofar as picture dates and attributions were identifiable.
When I first walked into the NG exhibition, which is  curated by Susan Foister and Alison Smith, I thought it was linked to Liz Prettejohn’s latest book Modern Painters, Old Masters -that is, that the latter was ‘the book of the show’.   But it is apparently not so, and indeed the book has a far wider field than the exhibition, which is built around the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck.    However, or perhaps moreover, the book investigates the relation between the portrait and the artists of the PRB generation in great depth.  One citation is Ruskin’s commendation of ‘a small picture on panel, representing two quaintly dressed figures in a dimly lighted room’ - i.e. the Arnolfini Portrait – ‘dependent for its interest  little on expression, and less on treatment – but eminently remarkable for reality of substance, vacuity of space, and vigour of quiet colour’.[Quarterly Review March 1847] 

Two years later, the first PRB works were ready for exhibition, with their semi-secret initials and unconventional style.  Six months after this, DGR and WHH set off for Bruges on their trip to France and Flanders in autumn 1849.   Paris was a necessary destination for any British painter, but Bruges and Ghent were obligatory for those who had taken the ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ label for themselves and been criticised for valorising ‘primitive’ modes and works.    DGR’s responses to art were often poetic and he duly composed sonnets on their travels.  Some of these, including tributes to Memling but not van Eyck, were published in The Germ, the literary manifestation of the PRB, which DGR conceived and wrote for in the final months of 1849.
The second issue contained Hand & Soul, his keynote fiction of a 13th century Italian artist whom he named Chiaro di Messer Bello dell’ Erma and who appears as if a PRB avatar.  The tale begins as an art historical account of a very ‘primitive’ Florentine painter, of whom ‘little heed is taken’ and whose work is ‘gone like time gone – a track of dust and dead leaves…’  There follows an imaginative narrative of Chiaro’s quest for fame and fortune amid turbulent times, ending with a Romantic-devotional vision of his own soul in female guise, which he paints.  The result is a ‘small picture’ on panel in the Pitti Palace, attributed to ‘autore incerto’ and in modern times hung out of chronology just below a disputed Raphael. 

Surely inspired by Ruskin’s praise of the Arnolfini Portrait, together with devotional works by Memling and Van Eyck,  Chiaro’s painting represents 
‘merely the figure of a woman, clad to the hands and feet with a green and grey raiment, chaste and early in its fashion, but exceedingly simple.  She is standing: her hands are held together lightly, and her eyes set earnestly open…. As soon as I saw the figure, it drew an awe on me, like water in shadow….the most absorbing wonder of it was its literality.  You knew that figure, when painted, had been seen…’

Sunday, 19 November 2017

May Morris and Alfred Hitchcock

Not literally, in person, alas, but via the big screen in a small town.
In July 1937, MM and MF  had a sudden yearning ‘to hear the curlews calling again above Blaen-hafren.’  They abandoned plans to camp in Herefordshire, hired a car with driver Mr Norris and headed again for Lanidloes, where they checked in at the Trewythen Arms.  Then the evening:

After dinner we actually went next door to a Cinema show Sabotage. Oh but it was funny! the confusion, the unreality in ‘real’ scenery, the hideous voices, the more hideous close-ups.
In one scene we see two gentlemen ‘conspiring’ in front of a tank at the former Westminster Aquarium where  a turtle is showing off quite nicely.  I was beginning to enjoy the turtle when we were switched off to an interior with a young lady with the American puffy cheeks and a painful smile mending big toy sailing-boat with a lad looking on.  To them enters a thickset man with nerves, apparently her husband  who I believe has been ordered by the wicked Bolshevist of the Aquarium to bomb something or somebody.  Then switch off to some underground machinery – then to a  shabby parlour where conspirators are conspiring  Scotland Yard next and a handsome young detective.  And so on.  Then a lunch party between the Detective and the Unhappy Wife who I suppose is being pumped about her husband’s actions; but all the voices are so rauquous [sic] and unnatural that one doesn’t catch what is said – and it doesn’t matter.  Then we have London streets and the nervous Conspirator being tracked by the handsome Detective; then the conspirators parlour and a knock at the door and all the folk melt away except the nervous man – Another switch to something or other.  Then a close-up of a clock bomb with the hands set to 2.15.  Then the Nervous man’s home & he gives a parcel to the Lad (wife’s young brother) to leave in the cloakroom at Piccadilly Circus (we somehow gather there is a big function and procession to come off to fit in with the bomb).  Then the boy & parcel lounge thro’ different comic scenes and at last find themselves in an omnibus.
Next we have a close-up of the bomb with the hands pointing to 2.13, and I get very nervous and put my hands to my ears and MF laughs -  There are other muddly scenes and then the omnibus again and a puff and presumably the boy and the bus etc are blown up.  By this time the Unhappy Wife and the Handsome Detective  are finding affinities and he wants to “spare the woman”.  The great scene is at her house where she is unwillingly preparing a meal for her husband, obviously distracted by news of an explosion and the death of Young Brother.  We have a close-up of her hands cutting bread with a sharp carver & then after various switchings they stand opposite each other and presumably she jabs him. It was all so quick I didn’t see this but Mr Norris said he saw the knife in his stomach.  Then scenes in which the lady is anxious to go to prison but the Detective  (with sundry disgusting close-ups of  nasty floppy faces kissing) informs her that no passports are needed to go over to Boulogne (aren’t they?) and he is going to take her away, and all is well – God Save the King. 

May’s conclusion:
It was as incoherent and ever sillier than the Waltzes from Vienna, with Queen Victoria dancing about the stage, that I saw with Cousin in London the other day.  Just imagine the ingenuity of this invention being used to turn out stuff of this sort.  However MF and I got a good laugh now and then.  And so to bed.

Born in 1862, MM was 75 when she watched Sabotage, so perhaps unsurprisingly disconcerted by jump-cuts (‘switchings’) and barely-glimpsed violence.  But, however selective, her frame-by-frame summary is somewhat extraordinary and a tribute surely to Hitchcock’s cinematic power.  



Friday, 17 November 2017

May Morris on the Joys of Camping

IN SUMMER 1934 May Morris and Mary Frances Lobb (MF) took their annual camping holiday in mid-Wales – ‘an enchanting place by little Severn singing over his stones’, opposite ‘a grassy slope rising high to the sky’.
Postal deliveries never seem to have been a problem.  One day ‘a letter came addressed “To the Ladies in charge of the Camp” asking for an account of it’.  So, as it was blustery with icy wind and some rain, they composed an article.

Which was printed four days later in The County Times under the headline: ‘Reader’s Account of Life under Canvas / Defying the elements’ and quoting in full from Miss May Morris, of Kelmscott Manor, Lechlade, Gloucester:
From our home in the flats of upper Thames valley our holiday thoughts always turn to the hills and wild places of the west, where the curlews call.  This year it was to be somewhere near the source of the Severn, and study of the map showed Lanidloes as a point to start from in searching for a suitable camping-place.  Exploring up the valley, the trouble was to find a sheltered flat for setting up the tent.  But the ideal spot was discovered as though it called for us: close by Severn, in the lee of a  wooded hedge and sheltered from the winds; a mountain to north of us,  a mountain to south of us, and everywhere lovely growth of trees.  What is also important was it was well-fenced against cows and horses and wandering bulls.  Here for some peaceful weeks we listen to the hurrying water, keep house and cook (light tasks these, though we are house-proud and the tent always neat) and explore the glorious slopes of Plynlimon.  We are often asked, “How do you manage in bad weather?  Do you go up to the farm to sleep?”  Never, indeed!  We have camped in Outer Hebrides, on the Scots border, on the Cornish coast, by Cardigan Bay, on our own Berkshire Dows, and whatever the weather, we sit tight, wet or fine, sometimes listening to the drive of rain roaring on the tent or watching the veils of mist dancing fantastically across the hills, sometimes (rarely) making a trench to run the water away.  To take everything as it comes is the very spirit of adventure, and this one wouldn’t miss for all the comfort and security of stone walls.

It was fine when we set up tent and moved in, and the next day we sat and basked by the river; after that real mountain weather wet in – wind and rain with rare gleams of sun.  Severn often came gloriously in spate, so that our friends the ducks would not face it, but came quacking importantly and insistently to our front lawn, demanding bread, fighting and tumbling over each other  when they got it.   Of course the unexpected happens: i.e. coming back from a  long walk on the mountain one evening we received a shock: on opening up we found the provision-hamper upset, bacon , butter and lard gone, and all other goods strewn about, including our chief treasure, a huge pot of tent-made winberry jam well spread over everything, and the tent full of wasps.   This was the work of a very intelligent sheepdog, who astonishingly broke never an egg, nor a pot, nor a crock in getting what his soul craved for (having incidentally chewed a guy-rope to get inside).  So two tired women who had looked forward to a half-hour’s rest before getting supper, had to set to work to clean up. After the first surprise, we laughed till we ached – with always the note of sorrow – the winberry jam was gone.

One is never dull in camp, even in the worst weather: there are books, writing up diary, sketching, embroidery, cooking (easy and quick with a Primus stove) and the hours pass with incredible swiftness.  We are close by a  delightful Welsh farm, full of interesting furniture and fittings, the farmer and his wife the kindest and friendliest of people, a  pretty wee maid of two running to us talking Welsh – to which we always reply “Bore da i chwi” – our only Welsh.  It is a peaceful contemplative life.  When home again by the upper waters of the Thames we shall look back on our stay by this mountain river as a happy dream; at time there may be some sound or scent that brings it all back, and we shall say longingly, “The curlews are crying over Blaenhafren”.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

May Morris : New Perspectives

May Morris: Art & Life. New Perspectives, edited by Lynn Hulse

A new publication to complement the V&A/WMG volume,  this presents the original research papers from the 2016 Conference which explored May Morris's life and work from many different angles - as designer, craftswoman, teacher, historian, author, editor and heritage campaigner.  Contributors include: Jan Marsh, Anna Mason, Rowan Bain, Catherine White, Hanne Faurby & Jenny Lister, Lynn Hulse, Annette Carruthers, Helen Bratt-Wyton, Helen Elletson, Margaretta Frederick, Mary Greensted, Kathy Haslam and Julia Dudkiewicz.
This collection offers new insights into the business practices of Morris & Co.'s embroidery department under May's management; her intellectual and artistic response to medieval embroidery; her career as a teacher and educator; her support for other female artists through the Women's Guild of Arts and the reception of her lecture tour of the United States. New perspectives are also offered on her family relationships, political outlook and the active and influential role she played in preserving and shaping William Morris's legacy.
Published by the Friends of the William Morris Gallery and handsomely designed by Roger Huddle, the 256pp book has 96 images.  Price £20.00. plus £2.90 postage, it is  available from  Friends of the William Morris Gallery c/o Roger Huddle 31 Cottenham Rd London E17 6RP (07973443030)  and through the various properties associated with the Morris family.

Friday, 22 September 2017


view uphill towards Cock-a-Lofty today

IN SUMMER 1933 May Morris (MM) and Mary Frances Lobb (MF) spent a month above Hay-on-Wye, camping on a grassy spot beside a stream beneath woodland, on open ground known as Lower Tack Common.  I don’t know how they chose the location, which was presumably familiar to walkers climbing Hay Bluff and Lord Hereford’s Knob.  Starting from Kelmscott in Oxfordshire, they travelled to the Crown Hotel, Hay, and then ’went forth in a car driven by a young man with a brilliant red head, to hunt our camping ground’, on a stony road uphill beyond Cusop.  At New Forest Farm ‘Mr Gwllym, the son’ directed them further up to a wooded glen with a gurgling stream, where ‘very shortly we found a still likelier place (though thistly)  sheltered and graced with a lawn-like slope.’ 

The next day they shopped for supplies and drove back to the spot where – in May’s detailed holiday diary – ‘MF and I are soon busy destroying thistles with a sharp hoe we bought, so that when the boy comes up again with the camp outfit, we are ready to pitch the tent, perspiration dropping from every angle of us!’
‘The nearest farm is a small high-perched cottage standing out against the dimmer colours of “the Mountain”, as they call our nearest height (1500).  The delicious name is Cockaloftie (spelling?), kept by Miss Pryce.  We went to call on the lady in the evening, to ask if our mail might be delivered to her house.  The stream below was gay with forgetmenots and musk, and two pretty Hereford cows were grazing on the steep slope’.

The mail duly arrived at Cock-a-Lofty, brought right to the tent every morning, the postman even offering to wait for replies, and perhaps also indulging in curiosity regarding the campers, for May was over 70, elderly and slight, while MF was 55, robust, tall and customarily wearing countrywoman’s breeches.   Miss Pryce’s dog (‘collie by nature’) also visited daily, as did the cattle, annoyingly. ‘MF has to head them off. As it is they have dirtied our lawn’.

View from close to camping ground today
MF undertook much of the practical work, digging trenches, damming a pool in the stream, cooking on a primus stove. ‘We have a flat space, backed by a hollow against steep incline covered with bracken.  A bank alongside and in front a ‘lawn’ of fine grass where our beech-shaded parlour is,  sloping down to the stream. This little corner has a peculiar charm which never fails to touch me as I get the morning water; it curls at the foot of  a rounded hill’.

In Hay they bought butter, bread, ginger-biscuits and two large jars, which MF filled with 14lbs of jam made from whinberries –‘an immense success’ - stored in their alfresco larder.

New Forest Farm
At New Forest Farm below Cock-a-Lofty,  they met Mr Gwllym senior, ‘a tall handsome elderly man with an engaging smile’, who talked well and amusingly about a previous camping party that was drenched by rain.  MM and MF bought milk here, together with cream cheese made by Miss Gwllym.  Some days later Miss Gwilliam (MM was spelling phonetically) showed them the big oven, ‘which goes a great way back’, in which ‘she does all the baking once a week in the old-time way, bread and cakes and pies etc. It is a handsome old house which she keeps beautifully, unaided.  A fine staircase and there used to be a gate at the bottom of it.’

Below New Forest was Mrs Lloyd at Llangwathan, who offered them cider, ‘in the cool of a handsome old parlour, shining with cleanliness, with deep windows, great beams with bacon-hooks and panelled walls.’    The Lloyds called at the camp a day or so later, bearing cream and more cider, receiving coffee and cakes in response.  Later, MM and MF created a ‘Llangwathan cocktail’ combining the farm’s cider with their own whisky.  A fortnight later they were shown over the  gabled farmhouse, a ‘veritable little old Gothic building’ with fine internal doorways, oak-panelling and deep window-seats. The staircase was part-stone, part polished oak, leading to roomy attics and great beams with long cusped arches beneath the roof line.  Outside they admired the pink pigs and ‘put in a plea for one of the hams’, having previously tasted delicious home-cured slices from the Gwlliams.  Towards the end of their stay Mrs Lloyd sold ten pigs at Hereford market.

For a few days when MF was sick (blamed on a good lunch of goose, followed by beer and walking in hot sun) MM spent her time on embroidery and painting watercolour views ‘when the evening light was right for the fairy-like vision of the valley between cliff and hill.  Then an enormous yellow moon rose over the ferns in a cloudless sun-set sky.’  On their final evening Miss Pryce came down from Cock-a-Lofty to pick blackberries, saying ‘she wishes we lived somewhere up here’ so she might see them more often.
Entrance to camping ground today