Sunday, 25 November 2012

Gillian Allnutt Portrait of Gwen John

I first met Gillian Allnutt through Lizzie Siddal, when I was researching Lizzie's then fragmentary life story and Gillian was writing 'Lizzie Siddal: Her Journal'.  We had some fun at literary festivals and art galleries with a  joint presentation of poems (by Gillian and Lizzie) pictures (by Lizzie) and biography (by me). 
She has a new collection Indwellings in preparation, which will be published by Bloodaxe  in 2013. It contains several poems inspired by paintings, including one by Gwen John that should be familiar via a few lines from Gillian's poem, which is as spare and still as Gwen's pictures:

the heart's milk wood made welcome
as necessity
as strength of will
as summer in a jamjar on the table.
I'd call the poem a portrait although/because like the painting there's no-one visible in it.

And I've just discovered that one of Gillian's poems was featured by Carol Rumens in the Guardian last week, with an appreciative exposition - see here

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Finding the Garden 8

From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
The few friends I had in the neighbourhood raised a chorus of remonstrances when my projects were unfolded to them.  The house stood very near the high-road on one side, and an Italian friend made his wife write to me to say he felt it his duty to warn me of all the dangers to which we should be exposed; and my banker, when he heard that I intended being my own clerk of the works, exclaimed that for a    signora forestiera to begin on her own account to deal with workmen appeared to him a very poor prospect.  I had offered a quite moderate rent, with the proviso that I would myself do whatever was required inside the house, but stipulated for the entire use of the piece of ground attached to it.  In making this offer I was not aware that that it was precisely the arrangement best suited to the person to whom it was proposed, who hated to be “bothered”, and who would certainly not have undertaken such alterations as I wished to make.
In Italy it is always best to avoid any arrangements with a landlord which provide for his undertaking alterations that the tenant wishes to have done; the result is always unsatisfactory, both in the quality of the work accomplished, and in the friction engendered on both sides.
Of the first of November I took possession of my new residence, but some kind friends insisted on my spending a week with them so as to allow of one or two rooms being put into some sort of order before I commenced what was certainly the roughest time I have ever experienced in my life.  I had my own invaluable Scotch maid, and engaged an excellent Italian woman as bonne à tout faire till I got into order, and, for the next three months, I may say we lived with the work-people.  Partitions were taken down, indeed I narrowly escaped pulling down the main wall of the house.  We were spared this disaster owing to the visit of young Scotch friend, an architect, and have always felt that he deserved a memorial tablet on the wall of the house!  There were no bells, and old Giuseppe, who took a deep interest in our proceedings, could not understand  why one in each room should be deemed necessary.
“Surely” he said “one to every three rooms would suffice.”  During all that fatiguing time, and indeed to the end of his life, he remained our staunch friend, and was always ready to help us in any way he could. I put in two additional windows in the drawing-room, and several open terra-cotta stoves, for there were only two fire-places in the house; and when the brick-layers, masons, and bell-hangers had departed, they were succeeded by the painters.    

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Finding the Garden 7

 From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
The views were enchanting: towards the north we looked up to the highest point of the old Etruscan mother city; eastward were the Vallombrosan hills, and lying down below, veiled in the misty light of the hot June sun, were the domes and spires of Florence, with the blue Apennines rising beyond, towards the far south.  At the head of this park was the back or garden entrance to the large villa, and a sidewalk led from it to the gardens proper, now alas! In a fearful state of “decadence”.
The whole place was a perfect revelation to me. With perhaps the single exception of the royal villa of Quarto, I had never seen, nor have I since ever seen, any place in Tuscany to compare with it.  So great an expanse of level ground is very unusual there, and it was the blending of the English with the Italian element of beauty that gave it so distinctive a character, and so great a charm.  Much of the planting had been done in the far-off days of the English owners.  The back of the large villa was covered with roses and jasmine, and the gardens, though in a pitiable state of neglect, bore traces of what they must once have been when, in the care of English gardeners, and when their mistress herself was often at work in them at five o’clock of a summer morning.
The park quite decided us that here we were going to establish ourselves, looking on the house merely as a place in which to sleep.  We knew enough of the ways of the country to understand that there would be no such restrictions as prevail in England, and that we should practically have the run of the place.   But it was months before matters were arranged.  The owner was abroad; his secretary, with whom all business matters were transacted was ill during a great part of that summer; I was away in the mountains during August, and when I returned and took up the thread of negotiations, so many difficulties had to be overcome that I was several times on the point of throwing up the matter.  I wanted a nine years’ lease, the longest legal term in Tuscany; but this was absolutely declined, and I was unwillingly obliged to content myself with a two years’ agreement.  The secretary  explained that they had never had a permanent tenant there and would like to see how the arrangement worked before committing themselves to a longer period. I felt there was reason in this, but there was so much to be done to the house that it was a great venture for me, and had we been obliged to give it up at the end of two years the loss would have been very great.  Had I been dealing with an Italian we should certainly either have had our rent doubled or been turned out on our improvements; but with an Austrian it was different.  Had I been resident in Tuscany in more recent times, I should have known that it was a matter of no importance to the owner whether the little house as let or not, and I can now never help smiling when I think how supremely ridiculous I must have appeared in many ways during these negotiations. I must have been a trial to the secretary, for all my ideas were of the most precise and British order, and things in Italy are not worked on those lines.  Indeed we had several battles royal, chiefly from want of the gift of tongues; he was a German, speaking no English but only Italian and French, I do not speak German, so that we were both talking in a foreign language.  However, I think I may say that these little differences were all forgotten and forgiven in later years.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

William Morris & The Book

William Morris's last enterprise was the Kelmscott Press, fine printing of books by Caxton and his contemporaries and by Morris and his favourite authors - almost all texts that WM loved for their own sakes.  Over 50 titles in five years made it not a hobby but a business which, guided by quality not cost, aimed to make at least enough profit to continue in production.  I've been reading up on his book-making life for a forthcoming lecture and have concluded that the Kelmscott Press was a serious enterprise rather than a vanity project and that its secondary aim - alongside the making of books that were beautiful as well as useful - was success in a small, craft-based business such as, or as potentially close to, that run by Caxton; and that WM's pleasure lay in planning and managing such production, and proving that there was a market for high-quality, hand-finished items such as his books.

The first lecture is at the University of Bristol, 6.00pm Tuesday 20 November 2012, Great Hall, Wills Memorial Building. Free but booking needed
Followed by a broadly similar performance in memory of Peter Preston at the William Morris Society, 2.15pm Saturday 1 December.   See 

Friday, 2 November 2012

Princes & Puritans

It's becoming a seventeenth-century season.   
In historical order:
The Lost Prince: Henry Stuart, a exhibition triumph at the NPG about a wholly forgotten figure, presented in portraiture with awkward arrogance and royal pride.  Visually, it's about the splendour of Jacobean costume: gold-embroidered silks, filigree lace stand-up collars, pink and purple shoe pompoms, padded sleeves and sumptuous breeches over swashbuckling boots. All the finery that the Puritan preachers assailed.   Henry's first inlaid suit of armour is both splendid and poignant, being for a young teenager.   Henry died in 1612, aged 18.
Making his younger brother Charles heir to the kingdom.
And we all know what happened to him: Howard Brenton's new play 55 Days at Hampstead Theatre needs no historical backstory, but plunges straight into the turbulent conflict between Crown and Country 1648-9 leading to Charles's execution, which nobody wanted, unless perhaps it was Charles (Mike Gattis got up uncannily like the Van Dyck portait) unable to contemplate relinquishing any aspect of his divinely-appointed role. Cromwell and the New Model Army, clad in uniform military black, don't rightly know what to do; at any critical moment they shut their eyes and stab a finger in the bible.  Like a sibylline leaf the random text provides divine guidance.
Which leads neatly to the third piece, Vaughan Williams's opera of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress at the ENO.  Though here staged with mid-20th century costumes and allusions, this is the prime Puritan text, second only to the bible in Dissenting history, adjuring the pious to struggle on through temptation, doubt and despair, renouncing not just the devil and his works but all worldly fortune, fame and pleasure. Though  the vocal lines are a bit churchy for today, VW's orchestration is rich and absorbing and the message only as religious as you wish it to be.  Apollyon is terrific, if rather easy to puncture. The song of the woodcutter's boy (here played as a dinner-lady with soup-trolley)  throws out a vivid allusion to both  Prince Henry and King Charles.
 He that is down need fear no fall, He that is low, no pride