Saturday, 16 March 2019

Is Constable an artist of nostalgia?


This is a story of an artist in his time, and the unexpected ways in which his works, and the ideas on which they were based, have been transformed in the present-day to mean something quite different.  First, look at the sketch above: Barges on the Stour at Flatford Lock, painted around 1810. It has an immediacy, a capturing of a natural effect, that is remarkable for that date. Yet Constable is famous with the public not for this kind of thing but for The Haywain


Is Constable’s an art of nostalgia? Like other cultural figures that are appropriated as embodying a national tradition, Constable cannot be held entirely guilty for the ideas attached to his works. What looks to us today like a rural idyll was a working landscape. Nonetheless, the scenes celebrated by Constable are a very specific rural, non-industrial vision of the world.

Constable’s work, and his modern reputation, seem to be the result of a two-way tension:

Firstly, Constable created remarkable sketches, both in pencil and in oil, of landscapes and scenes that he observed. Much of what he saw involved clouds and their formations.

Secondly, Constable craved the success of public approval. This could only be obtained by exhibiting large-scale works at the Royal Academy and elsewhere; the small oil sketches would not be accepted. But to create the large-scale works, it seems that Constable lost the wonderful freshness of his oil sketches, even though the larger works are based on the smaller versions.  His big six-foot canvases were not painted at or near the sites portrayed. In any case, you can’t do a six-foot canvas from nature.


How did the second Constable emerge from the first? According to the caption in the V&A, Constable’s Watermeadows near Salisbury, painted 1820 or 1829, was shown to the Royal Academy but was criticised as “a nasty green thing”, at which point Constable withdrew it. That seems to me to summarise Constable’s achievement and limitation. The pictures that were accepted by the Academy were the wrong ones; those that were rejected, like this one, are the truly innovative ones.

“Constable is a painter of the particular rather than the general, the actual, rather than the ideal” (John Sunderland, Constable, 1971). But I don’t think that is quite true. The failure of C is that he did not stick to this principle. His famous paintings (The Haywain) are much less impressive than the studies painted in preparation for it. I saw today in the V&A some of Constable’s oil sketches, and they are a revelation – so different to the dreary formal landscapes of the 19th century. They appear to be very accurate renditions of the landscape, unlike the more formal exhibition pieces, that rearrange parts of the view.

Today’s British public wants an artist like Constable so that it can find reassuring images of a mythical rural tradition. Hence the transmutation of the first Constable to the second was very much in keeping with what the general public want today.  So to answer the question, Is Constable’s the art of nostalgia, I believe in his finished exhibition works, the answer is yes; in the more honest sketches, that is not the case. 

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Finding out about the Roman Empire


The Roman Empire: a Very Short Introduction is a book that leaves many questions unanswered. There is no overall attempt at any chronological account, which is fine, but the events that are described are incomplete, and the other topics that are covered are sometimes of questionable relevance; I assume, given the title, that the theme is the Roman Empire, rather than just ancient Rome. The author only has some 130 pages, which he chooses to divide into just 20 pages for history and events, followed by six thematic chapters.

The first chapter, which gives in very concise form (less than 20 pages) an analysis of the assassination of Julius Caesar and states this event was not the real foundation of the Roman Republic; instead, it took place earlier, at “the foundation of an empire under the Republic” – it would be good if the author told us when this took place. In fact, the rest of the book after chapter one was for me something of a non-event, since the questions raised in that chapter were not followed up. Once the author has revealed that the murder of Caesar is not the restoration of democracy but simply a minor event in a power struggle between leading families, the subsequent Empire rather loses interest. Knowing how Pliny praised the emperor Trajan when addressing him is fairly predictable stuff – it is unlikely, after all, that any commentator would condemn the Emperor to their face.

As for the end of the Roman Empire, this is not really covered at all. There is a mention of Gibbon as “the best account” (p3), but no attempt to explain why the Empire ended. The result is tantalizing, just enough to convince us that the author knows his stuff, but not enough to answer the questions sufficiently. It’s not even clear when the Empire ends. There is a chronology at the back that goes as far as 192, but there is no explanation in the book why 192 might indicate any kind of ending. Elsewhere in the text, the conversion of Constantine to Christianity is included, which took place in 312. But there is no more explanation of why 312 an end date for the Empire might be than there was for 192.

There is an interesting chapter on the rise of Christianity. Kelly claims that the Romans could have dealt more effectively with Christians by confiscating their books than by creating martyrs, but to be honest, neither really answers the question we all have of why the Empire ended: did the rise of Christianity put an end to the Empire? We aren’t told.

One aspect that is covered very effectively is the nature of Roman rule. This was a military occupation, and any rebellion or opposition was ruthlessly crushed; according to one account, 985 villages were destroyed in suppressing the Jewish Revolt. Yet, the author points out, 19th-century British commentators described the Roman Empire in glowing terms as “the maintenance of a wonderfully high standard of internal peace and order”, comparing it with a similarly fictitious peace in the British Empire in India.

There is an excellent chapter (chapter 4) on the Roman love affair with all things Greek, which is fascinating, but not very central to the Empire; then there is a chapter called Living and Dying, that devotes several pages to life expectancy at the time; hardly relevant to the success or failure of the Empire. It also includes some questionable statements, such as that each woman in the Empire needed to have “at least five children” to maintain the population (p107). Since the Empire did not collapse because there weren’t enough people, this is not very useful.

All in all, certainly a Very Short Introduction, but one that could have organised its space more effectively.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Whistler and Illuminated Manuscripts


What connection, you might say, is there between the artist Whistler and illuminated manuscripts? Not much, I hear you answer. But there is almost as little connection between Whistler and Nature, and that is the title of a whole book – to be honest, a deeply disappointing book. Described as “published to accompany the exhibition” Whistler and Nature, it fails to explain how only a minority of the works in the exhibition are about nature, and yet makes clear how Whistler grew up in an environment of engineering and construction. His early landscapes include figures in the background erecting telephone cables, so clearly, he wasn’t striving for the traditional picturesque. Mention of the picturesque leads to a lengthy discussion of Capability Brown and William Kent that does not seem very relevant to Whistler. A claim is made that Whistler used the techniques of Gainsborough, which doesn’t seem very relevant either. More maddeningly, the book includes two of Whistler’s exquisite portraits, which are not discussed in any detail in the book. Why struggle to find links between Whistler and Nature, if he paints portraits as good as these? The book seems an object lesson in earnestly searching for themes in Whistler that are not the most fruitful ones for exploring what Whistler actually painted: urban landscapes, including industry and fog - when he wasn’t painting portraits. Some of those portraits, including At the Piano, 1858, are remarkable studies of adolescents.

The curator of the exhibition, and author of the bulk of the book, Patricia De Montfort claims in a rather over-elaborate way that Constable is depicting human industry in works like Dedham Lock (1820), and so, presumably, Whistler was following in a tradition of depicting industry in the picturesque landscape; I see the depiction of industry as accidental, not central to the theme of Constable’s painting, which in my opinion looks less like a study of human activity than a sense of nostalgia for a golden age; there is little industry in East Anglia.  Slightly more relevant is perhaps a Turner watercolour of Leeds, 1816, which certainly does appear to be a depiction of an industrial city, complete with smoke from chimneys. But surely the justification for Whistler’s Wapping is that the painter had grown up in a family of engineers, had studied at West Point, and liked the feel of activity and business from depicting working ships.

The real interest in Whistler is perhaps the series of Nocturnes (few if any of which appear in the exhibition), including the Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor (1874). These paintings simplify their ostensible view dramatically, and reduce it to a dusk or night-time scene, including a few artificial lights enabling the view to be discerned. Of course, as modern viewers, we find it incredible that any art can be created in Bognor, or, for that matter, we don’t immediately think of urban Westminster as a site for art. That finding of beauty in the fog and the haze of a modern city, and reducing an image to broad, almost abstract masses of colour, is where Whistler becomes interesting – the painter of modern life, to use Baudelaire’s phrase. It is as if he was depicting a landscape in the manner of Howard Hodgkin or Ivon Hitchens, a hundred years before either of them.

As for figures in Whistler’s landscapes, Ms de Montfort quotes Whistler himself on the role of one of these figures:

My picture of a Harmony in Grey and Gold is an illustration of my meaning a snow scene with a single black figure and a lighted tavern. I care nothing for the past, present, or future of the black figure, placed there because black was wanted at that spot.

Unfortunately, the author fails to take this hint and spends two pages describing the “intellectual tradition of the figure in the landscape”. As Beckett would say, no meaning where none intended.

The final chapter of the book, by Clare Willsdon, makes a claim for Whistler as a painter of gardens. If art criticism could be described like the children’s game where you search for the subject and are either hot or cold, depending on how close you are, then this writing is very cold indeed. Certainly Whistler created some engravings set in gardens; his wife was a keen gardener, and the resulting images are unobjectionable, perfectly competent, but not very memorable. It’s not the Whistler I remember.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

What to make of Whistler

The Red Dress, 1894
There are two Whistler exhibitions running concurrently at the Fitzwilliam, Cambridge museum. One is a travelling show that appears to have been mounted by the Hunterian Collection of the University of Glasgow, without any curatorial involvement from Cambridge, while, in true Fitzwilliam style, the other is from the Fitzwilliam’s own collection of prints - a completely independent exhibition. Intriguingly, you can sometimes see the same print in both exhibitions, but with different captions. The Fitzwilliam’s own captions look to me to be more informed about how the print was made, and often about the context.

What can we say about Whistler? One of the most cantankerous people who ever lived, is the first thing that comes to mind. Publishing a book about negative things people have said about you (The Gentle Art of Making Enemies) suggests a pretty feisty character, and pushing your brother-in-law through a plate glass window does somewhat reduce my sympathy for Mr Whistler.

There is no mention of the episode with the brother-in-law in the “Whistler and Nature” exhibition (curated by Patricia de Montfort, lecturer in history of art at Glasgow University, although there is no mention of her position in the catalogue). Here we have a rather sanitised Whistler, grouped by theme. Many of the drawings and prints are very small, and the exhibition’s strange insistence on roping the spectators back from the works means it is difficult to see them. By contrast, the Fitzwilliam’s own show does not prevent you getting close to the works, nor from photographing them. Incidentally, the “Nature” part of the Whistler and Nature show seems to be rather widely interpreted. It includes the female nude, studies of Venice and The Thames; I don’t know why the exhibition wasn’t simply called “Whistler in the Hunterian, Glasgow, with a few other works”.

Unfortunately, the catalogue follows the recent trend of not including all the works in the exhibition, nor even making it clear which of Whistler's works are included or not. Even more unfortunate, the best Whistler by far in the catalogue, the oil painting Wapping, from the Washington National Gallery of Art, is not included. 

Whistler’s nudes are a disappointment, at least based on this display. They appear to be a long series of females wearing some diaphanous clothing, with the aim of capturing the movement of the material. The result is simply rather vague and inconsequential. Some of Whistler’s oil paintings of seascapes capture much better the evanescent quality that he was evidently seeking.

Similarly, the exhibition’s attempt to link Whistler to contemporaries (Albert Moore, Japanese paintings) does not seem to be sufficiently clear. I didn’t see much of a link between the Moore painting and Whistler’s own work, nor did I recognise the Japanese elements pointed out to me in the captions. That doesn't mean they aren't there, simply that I didn't see them from the works displayed. 

The Kitchen, 1858
For me, the best works were the small oil paintings and some of the highly worked engravings, in which Whistler shows true skill in using the various print-making techniques he had learned. One print in particular, The Kitchen, 1858, achieves some wonderful broad areas of dark shading that I didn't think were possible from an engraving. Some of the lithographs look to be simply transmitting pencil shading to paper, without any intermediate printing process – truly remarkable. Apparently, the caption tells us, Whistler learned to draw not directly onto the plate but onto a sheet that was then transferred. However he did it, the results are superb - a good example is The Red Dress, 1894. 

What to do about tourists in Cambridge



Encourage them, is the simple answer.

I didn’t (initially) choose this topic. It was a presentation, believe it or not, at the Cambridge Antiquarian Society spring meeting (March 2019). What is their interest in Cambridge tourism? Pretty negative, from the sound of it. And after hearing complaints about the tourists (including local councillors asking for bus parking to be more controlled, and one comment in this presentation about a tax on coaches visiting Cambridge) I am moved to write.

Here, then are my suggestions for the positive management of tourism in Cambridge, based on the following premises:
  • Tourists visiting Cambridge is a good idea. The tourists should not be shunned. After all, they could be visiting Alton Towers or Madame Tussauds. Here, they are looking for an educational experience.
  • The tourists are concentrated in and around Kings College. Hence there is a need to disperse the tourists. I suggest three new areas: Parker’s Piece, the station, and the area around Kettle’s Yard. 

 Here, then, are my ten suggestions:

  1. A new museum of Cambridge positioned perhaps at the railway station – the Mill building. This museum would be (a) the designated repository of archaeological finds in Cambridgeshire, (b) would cover Cambridge growth and industry rather than the University specifically. Alternatively, it could occupy the former cinema in Hobson Street (which has been empty for years). This museum should take over the computing museum, which has truly the worst location of any museum ever.
  2. Converting two or three of the city centre churches to tourist-based activities: St Bene’t, or Little St Mary’s. This policy has been very successful in Norwich.
  3. Double the size of the Fitzwilliam Museum, with Heritage Lottery Funding. The Fitzwilliam is capable of taking twice as many visitors as it currently has. The Ashmolean had 937,000 visitors in 2017, and is moving from Feb 2019 to seven-day opening. The Fitzwilliam had 397,000 visitors in 2017. Here is a way of relocating over half a million of Cambridge visitors!
  4. A museum of Cambridge University. This could be based in the Police and Fire Station building, both relocated further out of the centre. Include rooms on China and Cambridge, Japan and Cambridge, with details of alumni and artworks, etc. The Oxford Story was in my opinion a very valuable introduction to the university for visitors. It had around 165,000 (declining to 100,000) visitors per year.
  5. The Cambridge Museum (formerly the Folk Museum) takes over the church of St Giles opposite and becomes twice as large. Create a museum cluster around Kettle’s Yard, with a redesign of the whole area, to create a more pedestrian-friendly space, including street cafes, and other public spaces. Make this space one of the dispersal zones.
  6. The Cambridge University Library opens a museum and café, showing some of the illuminated manuscripts from its collection. The Bodleian has 771,000 visitors annually.
  7. A tourist train, battery-powered and single-deck, running through the middle of Jesus Green and Parker’s Piece, as well as the central triangle (King’s Parade, Sidney Street, St Mary’s Street). Each train holds a maximum of 50 people. The train route would start at the station and would go around the central triangle.
  8. Open some university buildings to visitors, such as the Senate House.
  9. Congestion charging for cars along Trumpington Street and Regent Street, set at a price that means the traffic is not gridlocked along these streets.
  10. Sign posts between the station and the city centre, including signs to individual colleges (how radical!) The principle is simple: do you want to encourage tourists, or confuse and bamboozle them, as currently happens? Anyone arriving at Cambridge Station only reaches the centre of Cambridge with great difficulty. 

Sunday, 17 February 2019

I'm glad I didn't meet John Doe


Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941) must be one of the most unlikely Hollywood stories. I’m astonished it ever survived the initial review of the script.

To summarise, a young ambitious journalist, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) creates a fictional character, under the pseudonym John Doe, who is going to commit suicide as a protest against social injustices (these social injustices are not specified in detail anywhere in the movie). Her newspaper goes along with the idea and hires a down and out to impersonate John Doe – none other than Gary Cooper. The whole idea flourishes and becomes a political movement. At that point the agenda is hijacked by the newspaper owner, D B Norton, for the purposes of launching his own presidential bid. At the last movement, the John Doe surrogate turns away from suicide and takes over his destiny as the real John Doe, running a populist party.

Where are the holes in this story?
Firstly, the difference between Ann Mitchell and D B Norton are not so clear to me. Both of them are flagrantly prepared to exploit a down-and-out to promote their newspaper (initially), with the idea of social justice distinctly secondary. The journalist wins back her job by a coup – writing the John Doe article without consulting anyone. 

Secondly, perhaps more fundamentally, as David Thompson points out, there are distinctly fascist undertones in the idea of a single leader being able to create and built a political party, of whatever hue. It is clear by the end of the film that the “people” (as identified by this film, a small group from a rural area who in a moving cameo represent neighbourly folk everywhere). No blacks or single women, of course.

There are uncanny echoes of the contemporary political situation in the US. F D Roosevelt (who Wikipedia tells me is often rated as one of the three greatest US presidents) stood for election in 1940 on a peace platform, while having a clear intention to take the US into the War. His 1936 election campaign was unashamedly populist. Campaigning against “economic royalists”, he stated “I welcome their hatred. I should like to have it said of my administration, that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match”. This is just the kind of vague populism that we encounter in Meet John Doe. There are never any examples of specific social injustice, and the only positive recommendations seem to be nicer to your neighbours. The above quote is taken from Jackson Lears’ review of a recent biography of FDR.

Unfortunately, Mr Lears then continues the review above by stating: “It [the speech by FDR in 1936] was the rhetorical high point of American populism – the genuine article, as opposed to the contemporary right-wing counterfeit”. Meet John Doe is I think a clear example of how easy it is to manufacture such a counterfeit. John Doe is selected quite blatantly as the most attractive man among all the tramps applying for the post. In other words, Gary Cooper is anything but John Doe: he’s anything but average. Did Capra not think for a moment that having a physical god addressed by a small group of John Doe Club members, all of them looking like losers, slightly jars? That the whole John Doe initiative is not run by D B Norton but by the chilling journalist Barbara Stanwyck who makes every speech up, and successfully manipulates an innocent and not very intelligent (but stunningly beautiful) Gary Cooper.

Incidentally, the film contains what I think is the worst acting I have ever seen from Barbara Stanwyck. In the final scene of the film, she flings herself at Gary Cooper and begs him not to throw himself off the top of the building. He tears and emotionalism are utterly out of keeping with her character; she looks unconvincing; he believes she is in the pay of D B Norton and not to be trusted. After all, if he dies, she loses her job – she has a vested interest in keeping him alive. Not a very edifying moment for the movies.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Is Period Piece trivial?

It is certainly surprising that a book published more than 75 years ago, an autobiographical account of growing up in Cambridge, should still be in print. But Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece is not a typical autobiography. It continues to sell because of its charming touch. It is a book that seems disarmingly slight. The author’s light-hearted, self-deprecating tone obscures some serious messages that are conveyed – perhaps so much so that many readers are happily diverted into not noticing if it has any serious point at all. Perhaps it’s only possible to realise the subtle power of this book when you read the rather heavy-handed judgement on it by more modern critics. Mary Beard, for example, in the London Review of Books (19 September 2002), is very dismissive. She quotes admiringly Simon Raven’s review of the first edition, describing Raverat’s “minor Proustian skill”. Worst of all, she looks down on it as (the shame of it!) a local title: “the book … in Cambridge, at least, still sells briskly to locals and tourists alike”). Although the book continues to sell, Beard makes it clear that “the book is more bought than read”. There is a certain sneering tone in Oxford and Cambridge Universities that dismisses any work that attempts to be popular. According to Beard, Period Piece

certainly trades on the archly self-proclaimed nostalgia of its title, and on the wry vista it offers onto a lost world, through the childhood recollections of an elderly woman … three hundred pages of memoirs that are largely devoted to the sanitised minutiae of a privileged Victorian childhood. 

 That’s precisely it! Anything other than high culture is condemned. In reading Raverat’s memoir, we are aware of the vast transformation of the aristocratic world in which she grew up, and how much it had changed by the time Raverat described her upbringing. In other words, it is a very knowing memoir. For some reason I cannot fathom, Beard condemns Raverat for writing the book when old, and even for not making a better marriage: “Gwen married Jacques Raverat, middle-ranking artist and one of her neo-Pagan friends”. Clearly, then, not a good choice. One of the great successes of the book is the remarkably vivid pen and ink drawings illustrating the scenes she describes. They have a charm and an immediacy of Ardizzone or Edward Bawden. You could describe Raverat’s art (although I would not) as middle-ranking, or small-scale, or even (heaven help us) lowbrow. It is not mentioned in this review, yet it provided a way for Raverat to express herself vividly and with immediacy.

My reading of the book is very different. This book is indeed a period piece, a remarkable piece of social history that represents the best type of history: giving a greater awareness of the sheer strangeness of Cambridge. How could such a tiny institution, such a hothouse atmosphere, be responsible for most of the thought leaders and actual leaders of the Britain of its day? Is it possible that such elitism still persists, in quite fundamental ways, so that even though women are admitted to the exclusive club, the hegemony largely remains intact?
What are Beard’s criticisms of the book?

  1. Its "faux-naivety." I think Raverat knows exactly what she is doing in this book; what you condemn as an adult you accept as a child, and whatever the age at which Raverat wrote the book, she captures wonderfully some of the fears and dreams of a young girl. 
  2.  "Self-serving censorship and selectivity" – Beard claims that by leaving out details such as the death of her governess from cancer, Raverat can concentrate on her “litany of more trivial domestic disasters”. For me, one of the most chilling aspects of the book was the social upheaval and class struggle taking place all around Raverat’s privileged upbringing. 
  3.  Beard claims the book gets lost in detail, “for all its promised glimpse of mythical Cambridge”. Beard claims that Period Piece is part of the myth-making, that Raverat was “an old lady who may not be most fairly remembered for her part in the mythology of Cambridge croquet mallets, dreary domesticity and early bedtimes”. This is a bit like claiming Jane Austen is responsible for the vast numbers of costume drama escapists who escape to a never-never land that is not actually part of her novels at all. 
  4.  Its “cloyingly sentimental perspective on the sun and strawberries of late Victorian privilege, unmitigated … by much interest in social justice.” On the contrary, this book revealed more about the reality of Cambridge than any number of undergraduate and staff memoirs. For the most part, Cambridge memoirs miss out on the everyday. 
  5. Weirdly, Period Piece is condemned apparently because the people described are no longer famous: “its complex cast of late Victorian characters who – like Richard Jebb – have long since ceased to be household names, if indeed they ever were”. You should read the memoirs of pop-star groupies if you are seeking this sort of thing. Beard then goes on to quote approvingly some of the eccentricities in the male members of the family noted by Raverat. But it’s simply not true that the eccentricities were only male. Raverat describes her own mother, incapable of cooking yet convinced that she is in charge of the household, rationing the soap in such a regimented fashion that the domestic staff quietly subverted her authority by keeping stocks of essential items available from alternative locations. 


As Beard herself notes, the book describes in chilling detail, without overt criticism, the emptiness of women’s everyday lives. Her description of a shopping expedition to London is astonishing, if only for the unbelievable wealth displayed by her mother and family. If ever a book inspired me to promote female education, this is it. One of the successes of Period Piece, somewhat like Little House on the Prairie, is the restricted world view. Laura Ingalls Wilder writes, we realise as adults, with breath-taking naivety about the rights of white settlers to take native American land. Nonetheless, there is a vividness about Wilder and Raverat that is compelling. We cannot justify their social attitudes, but they are described with such chilling perfection that the effect is way more powerful than any lecture theatre. I would have every Cambridge undergraduate read Period Piece before meekly accepting the ludicrous late Victorian practices that persist at Cambridge colleges today, perpetuating an obsolete social order and elitism. Cambridge has changed far less than Ms Beard seems to suggest. The dismissal of, and blindness towards, the city of Cambridge remains breath-taking.

In her quiet and understated way, Raverat writes a more chilling condemnation of Cambridge privilege than any number of social tracts. Not so much Period Piece as A Tract for our Times. Without any male assertion of grand themes and major theories, Raverat strikes a blow for a female consciousness. Those little line drawings speak volumes. For me, one of the book’s great achievements is to celebrate a woman’s life that should have been systematically trivialised and ignored by the male-centred elitism of late nineteenth-century Cambridge. All possible steps were taken to prevent women studying, succeeding, becoming in any way memorable in the Cambridge of her childhood. Yet in this book Raverat makes her own unconsidered, irrelevant childhood something to celebrate. She has transformed her mundane upbringing through her words and pictures. She is remembered - while hundreds of male Cambridge professors who lived at the same time are not.