Saturday, 25 April 2015

Vernon Lee at Kelmscott House

In July 1881 the aspiring writer Vernon Lee [Violet Paget] called on the Morrises at Kelmscott House, following an invitation from Janey whom she had met through Marie Spartali in Italy.   In her characteristically catty manner she reported on house and hosts:

'The room was furnished rather like an extremely dingy sacristy with faded bits of old Italian furniture. A thickset, shockhaired, bearded man, powerful, common, rather like a railway porter or bargee & not unlike a sort of grizzled Charles Grant, was introduced to me as Mr William Morris; but as he was very busy apparently making furniture with two other men I had no opportunity of talking with him. Mrs M. had on the usual crinkled white garb with a  gold sarong around her waist or absence of waist; more beautiful and grand perhaps than in Florence.  She was very lazy and friendly & asked me to call again.'  [Vernon Lee's Letters, ed. Irene Cooper Willis 1937 p.70]

However, on her next visit a year later, she declared that
'the house is beautiful ... homely, artistic & far from any aesthetic house. Mrs M took me into a sweet garden, flowers & vegetables, they have with charming peeps of old brick, ivied houses; & gave me two blue sweet peas, just like Morris papers.' ibid p.95]

Then in 1883 Vernon Lee published Miss Brown, a novel about a barely-disguised Jane Burden Morris, who was so distressed and angry that three years later Mary Robinson was told she could not take Vernon Lee  to a grand party because it would cause 'great pain to an old and valued friend.'  Lee commented: 'This is doubtless Mrs Morris who answers exactly to the description & who has spoken in that sort of way before.  I don't at all blame her: my only vexation is that I should have caused the poor woman, whose life is far from happy, so much annoyance.' [ibid, p.221]

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Back to the Land! in 1905

A recent visit to Letchworth to talk about May Morris took me back to a book I wrote a long time ago a book on the pastoral impulse in late nineteenth-century Britain, which naturally featured garden cities alongside rural communes, vegetarianism, new schools and much more.  See here for the Faber Finds page.

Among all the books, poems and pamphlets I read at the time, I failed to investigate the Artistic Crafts Series of Technical Handbooks  edited by W.R.Lethaby, a chief Arts and Crafts figure.  Or I would surely have cited this passage, which comes in the middle of  Christopher Whall’s textbook ‘for students and workers’ on Stained Glass Work, published in 1905.  Following 15 chapters on technical matters like cutting, painting, staining, leading, fixing etc., comes one on Colour, which itself then bursts into impassioned protest that reads as a prelude to Howards End:

“I have tried to show you one side by speaking of a little part of what may be seen and felt on a  spring morning, along a ridge of untouched hills in ‘pleasant Hertfordshire’, west of the road between Welwyn and Hitchin: if you want to see the other side of things ride across to Buntingford, and take the train back up the Lea Valley.  Look at Stratford (and smell it) and imagine it spreading, as no doubt it will, where its outposts of oil-mill and factory have already led the way, and think of the valley full up with slums, from Lea Bridge to Ponders End!  For the present writer can remember – and that not half a lifetime back – Edmonton and Tottenham, Brondesbury and Upton Park, sweet country villages where quiet people lived and farmed and gardened amidst the orchards, fields and hawthorn lanes.
Here now live, in mile after mile of jerry-building, the ‘hands’ who, never taught any craft or work worthy of a man, spend their lives in some little single operation that, as it happens, no machine has yet been invented to perform; month after month, year after year, painting, let us say, endless repeats of one pattern to use as they are required for the borders of pious windows in the churches of this land.
This is ‘the other side of things’ , much commended by what is looked on as ‘robust common sense’; and with this you have – nothing to do.  Your place is elsewhere, and if it needs be that it seems an isolated one, you must bear it and accept it.  Nature and your craft will solve all; live in them, bathe in them to the lips; and let nothing tempt you away from them to measure things by the standard of the mart.
Let us go back to our sunny hillside. ‘It is good for us to be here’, for this also is holy ground; and you must indeed be amongst such things if you would do stained-glass, for you will never learn all the joy of it in a dusty shop.
“So hard to get out of London?”
But get a bicycle then; - only sit upright on it and go slow – and get away from these bricks and mortar, to where we can see things like these! Those dandelions and daisies against the deep, green grass; the blazing candle of sycamore buds against the purple haze of the oak; and those willows like puffs of grey smoke where the stream winds. Did you ever? No, you never!  Well – do it then!”

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Sidi portraits


Photos by Ketaki Sheth of the Sidi people of African descent in India
Room 33 @ NPG from 13 April

One of India’s leading contemporary photographers, Ketaki Sheth has a long-standing interest in questions of identity and representation. In her most recent project, shown here, she features the Sidi, a people of African descent living in India. With origins in historic trade routes, they have called India home since the seventeenth century, adopting many of the conventions of dress, food, and ceremony characteristic of the subcontinent. At the same time, they maintain a distinct identity and culture. 

There are currently about 70,000 Sidi living in India. Descended from sailors, traders, and slaves, some continue to think of Africa as an ancestral homeland, but nearly all consider themselves Indian in every other way. Most live in the western state of Gujarat and the southern state of Karnataka.

Sheth’s photographs are true portraits—insightful pictures of personalities living in Sidi communities. At the same time, her project explores the complexity of national and cultural identity and how this might shift over time, questions that relate closely to the Collection in National Portrait Gallery.  With a group such as the Sidi, how does one begin to separate issues of nationality, ethnicity, and culture? And how much of personal identity is shaped by tradition and context?  As touching as Sheth’s photographs are, they also remind us how complicated portraits can be.

see more  here NPG blogpost