King Arthur and Tintagel

One of my abiding interests from childhood is the myths of King Arthur. I dragged my parents round places such as Glastonbury Abbey (the alleged burial site of Arthur – one of several) and Tintagel  Castle (revenge, perhaps, for all the churches and stately homes!) I read and reread the myths, from children’s retellings to Chretien de Troyes, Malory, Spenser, Geoffrey of Monmouth (I was once asked to leave a history class at school for reading this under the desk, ironically) and, latterly, Tennyson. The Pre-Raphaelites, with their love of medievalism (shared by the Victorians more widely), also painted some Arthurian myths, and I’m interested in those, too. I’m less concerned about the ‘real’ King Arthur, if there was such a person (and if there was, he certainly couldn’t have been the medieval king he is depicted as) and more interested in what the myths mean to us, and what we do with them. It seems fair to say that the myths of Arthur and his Round Table have been associated with either those interested in mysticism, or those with an overabundance of misguided patriotism, but there are plenty of serious scholars, too. The constant reinterpretation of the myths, in poetry, fiction, art, films and more, is an indication of the enduring nature of the legends, but the ways in which these stories are used tells us more about the society in which these interpretations were created than it does about Arthur himself.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The stories are age-old, including chivalry, fighting, power, magic, love, adultery, faith, death and human fallibility. They come from all over the place – the stories we are now familiar with have been pieced together largely from Welsh, Cornish and French tales, and there is no ‘pure’ or ‘true’ version. But the stories of Arthur and his knights, their adventures, their search for the Holy Grail, the doomed love-triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot which brings down a kingdom, have resonances throughout history. Arthur, after his mortal wound, is taken to the mysterious Vale of Avalon; he was said to be ready to return when Britain needed him (and, interestingly, during WW1 some people apparently believed he would return). There are echoes of Christianity in this: as a good, pure man and leader, Arthur is figured in the myths as Christ’s representative on earth, whom death cannot kill and will one day return to save those in need. The chivalric code of Arthur’s court is set up as an idealised society in which all are welcome, all are brave, good, mutually supportive, and so on. (Actually the details of the stories indicate something more nuanced than this, though).

Places which are associated with Arthur are extremely popular. We visited Tintagel recently, which is known as the legendary place of Arthur’s birth to Ygraine and Uther; Merlin is said to have smuggled him away to live with another family (Sir Bors, I think). Tintagel Castle and village make much of this connection, and as we climbed up to the castle I told my small son some of the stories of Arthur (bowdlerised for children!) Surrounded by sea, high up on the cliffs, it’s an evocative place, despite the extremely tenuous Arthurian connections. I notice that another castle is being excavated near Tintagel, which is expected to arouse the interest of Arthurians (see here).

I was also curious to visit King Arthur’s Great Halls. In the 1930s, Frederick Thomas Glasscock acquired a Victorian house on the main street in Tintagel, and set about turning into how20160716_153528 he saw King Arthur’s court. This slightly barking idea has led to a fascinating place: the first room contains thrones on which one can sit and listen to a recording of Robert Powell reading the story of King Arthur, which is illustrated by some striking paintings by William Hatherall, which are very much period pieces. Each painting is lit up at the relevant moment in the story – my son loved it. Then one moves down a corridor which contains beautiful stained glass by Veronica Whall, loosely Pre-Raphaelite in style, featuring the coats of arms of the knights of the round table. The real destination, though, is the Great Hall itself: with 52 types of Cornish granite. There is a Round Table, along with thrones and suits of armour. It’s fascinating in a rather surreal way: remarkably kitsch, and indicative of the passion some people have for Arthur himself. You can find out more about the Halls here. There are various other places in the area, all which take equally seriously their position so close to the birthplace of King Arthur; perhaps we will visit those another time. Tintagel was fascinating, but I was happy to return home and read Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.

Victoria, the Victorians and us

116365I often have conflicted views about books and TV programmes which deal with real historical figures. There are so many questions surrounding how we react and respond to history, how we filter it through the lens of modern thought, which problematises the narrative. These questions came up quite a lot at the recent British Association for Victorian Studies conference . The topic was ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’, and many of the papers addressed how we, as consumers – academics, writers, critics, and also readers and viewers – ‘consume’ the nineteenth century. The plenary panel began with this concept, as Professor Valerie Sanders asked why we seem to want to make the Victorians seem more like us. With reference to ‘Victoria’ the new ITV series on the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, Sanders asked us to question whether our approach to popular historical dramas is a help or a hindrance. It’s a good question: no historical retelling is unmediated – there is no such thing as ‘pure’ history, and approaches to the narratives tell us more about us than about them. (For example, Cora Kaplan and G.B. Tennyson both pointed out that the search for hidden sexual innuendo in Christina Rossetti’s poems reflects more on the critic than the poet). This is true of ‘Victoria’, I think. Articles on the series have pointed out that this is an attempt to rehabilitate or recover Victoria from the ‘We are not amused’ image we have of her. Far from being obsessed with covering piano legs with tablecloths (an image passed on to us by Moderns such as Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, rebelling against their stifling Victorian childhoods), Victoria was a child of the Regency, familiar with vice. This much is true, though her very quiet and isolated childhood implies she was hardly on first-name terms with debauched rakes, but certainly she was more cheerful than popular views have led us to believe (see here for hilarious tales of Victoria).

Television such as ‘Victoria’ is trying to make the dour, older woman of our collective imagination more approachable. The young Victoria is played by Jenna Coleman, young, pretty and well-known; she creates a character who is impulsive, stubborn, fighting with her mother, perhaps slightly drunk on the power she has suddenly been given, falling in love with attractive, unsuitable men (like many teenage girls), and demonstrating a gratifying desire to undermine harsh treatment of the Chartists. Coleman’s hair is also artfully arranged just as the image above left. She looks the part – if prettier – but she is shaped by modern culture. Sanders asked if we like the Victorians more when they seem more like us, and I think that’s the point: for example, Victoria wasn’t that interested in the poor, and not particularly sympathetic to the fate of the Chartists (it was Lord Melbourne whose intervention caused them to be deported rather than executed for treason), but liberal values are important in our society, so the introduction of this element provides an opportunity to show Victoria as relatable. I’m glad the Chartists do feature; they are a significant part of British history, all too often overlooked, though the way in which her dresser brought their fate to her attention, allowing the benevolent monarch to intervene, does have distinct echoes of ‘Downton Abbey’. The introduction of the ‘downstairs’ element has this effect throughout, in fact; I don’t dislike it (in fact I applaud the way in which modern TV and fiction, like academic work, has taken more interest in narratives of working class lives recently) but it does sometimes feel a bit irrelevant or even patronising.

Melbourne

Lord Melbourne

A similar approach is taken in Victoria’s relationships. Personally I doubt she had quite such romantic feelings for Lord Melbourne (who was distinctly less attractive than Rufus Sewell with his magnetic cheekbones), but she certainly didn’t offer him an almost-proposal, and while it makes good TV, it doesn’t reflect history. Does that matter? I rather think it does, but probably only to purists like me. Of course it’s a fictionalised story – it’s TV, it’s entertainment; the ‘truth’, if we could uncover it, would be far less entertaining (and I am entertained by ‘Victoria’). Instead, we are presented with a burden of emotion in every scene, and never allowed to forget that she is both an impulsive young woman, and a queen. I think this is because, as we are so frequently reminded, human nature never changes, so of course the Victorians are like us. This is something of a fallacy: emotions such as love, anger, jealousy etc might have been the staple diet of literature for hundreds of years, but the way in which we express them, and indeed the way in which we feel them, is subject to change dependent on the society in which we live. But because we want to understand the Victorians, we make them more like us, and this means that we have to fictionalise, turning Victoria into a consumer item neatly packaged for 21st century audiences who probably don’t know much about her.

Academics are encouraged to find ‘relevance’ (a term I dislike) in everything we do. How do we make the past seem ‘relevant’ to students; how do we find ‘relevance’ in Queen Victoria for TV audiences? One way is to suggest that issues we see on our screens are played out in other contemporary arenas. Valerie Sanders mentioned an article in the Telegraph by Kate Maltby which suggests that, despite rhetoric suggesting Theresa May can be likened to Elizabeth I, in fact she is more akin to a young Victoria:

the surprising brutality of Theresa May’s approach to Team Cameron – sacking men like Dominic Raab, Nick Boles and Ed Vaizey, for the crime of friendship with Gove or Osborne – recalls a different young queen. Victoria has a softer image than Elizabeth Tudor, but viewers of ITV’s current hit series … will know her reign started with a ruthless purge.  Sir John Conroy, the disciplinarian who had run her household, was dismissed, and she moved him, together with her own hated mother, to distant rooms in Buckingham Palace. Her refusal to compromise over the Bedchamber Crisis finds echo in the ruthlessness with which May has not accepted even a few token enemies in her Cabinet. Victoria quite enjoyed Swiss holidays, too.

As a woman in power, and one who clearly enjoyed the exercise of that power, both Victoria and May provide subjects for debate; we haven’t had many queens, and even fewer female Prime Ministers. The series is timely for raising this question of how a woman can rule, and one suspects the general confidence in Victoria as queen was only slightly lower than that in May as Prime Minister (based on her gender, not views of her politics). ‘Victoria’ suggests that naturally she was a good queen: she might have been impulsive, scared of rats and prone to falling for her Prime Minister, but she was pretty, soft-hearted and prepared to defy those who want to control her. In many ways I think Victoria was a fairly good queen, but ‘Victoria’ is setting her up to be effective only because she has gendered traits which make her recognisable and likeable to modern viewers.

We make the Victorians more like us, then, in order to imply lessons from history; to make the past sexy, if not educational, and also to entertain us. The vast differences between us and them are easily overlooked in the name of entertainment, and perhaps that isn’t too bad, as long as people aren’t simply learning their history lessons from TV. There are, after all, many ways in which the Victorians were like us: they were concerned, albeit in different ways, about the environment, about education, about poverty, health and living conditions; and also about their clothes, their relationships, and more personal aspects. We just can’t assume that this was the same as the way we think about such things, though, and while we might feel closer to the nineteenth century for watching ‘Victoria’, this is an illusion. We need, and enjoy, stories, but narratives constructed for entertainment are just that, not history.

Clouds

Clouds fascinate me. Their infinite variety and beauty appeals, and every evening I watch the sunset from my house and marvel at the cloud formations which surround it. Sky spaces, where the scudding clouds are framed as works of art, are a delight. Recently, I lay in bed looking out of the window and wondering what clouds mean – prompted by reading Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland, which discusses the importance of clouds for Shelley and the Romantic poets, in particular. Of course clouds are impervious to us, and our desire to find shapes in them is simply a way of trying to make them conform to human understanding, but somehow I wanted to know more; now, I do. At the Port Eliot festival, I was delighted to hear Gavin Pretor-Pinney, author of The Cloudspotter’s Guide and founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, talk about the science of clouds, and why they are important.

The CAS has a manifesto:
We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.

We think that they are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.

We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.

We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save money on psychoanalysis bills.

And so we say to all who’ll listen: Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!
Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

JMW Turner, ‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’ (Tate Gallery)

I learned about what the shapes of clouds mean, and why they form in certain ways, which was explained using some entertaining experiments. They are not simply something which gets in the way of the sun, but the face of the atmosphere, which allow us to read its moods. Clouds, we were told, are ‘beautiful, dynamic, evocative aspects of nature’, an egalitarian display available to all, and also practical: we can read the weather through them. (Well, I can’t, not yet, but I hope to learn!) Cloud-watching is the sport of dreamers throughout history, from scientists to poets to artists (just look at Turner’s clouds, for example), and they are – I think – inspiring.

Shelley’s poem ‘The Cloud’ is a masterpiece of cloud art – read it here, and here is the last stanza:
The_Empire_of_Light_MOMA

Rene Magritte, ‘The Empire of Light’, 1950-4, MOMA

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.
 There is a lovely article about this poem by poet Sarah Doyle here, on the Wordsworth’s Trust blog.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

‘Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea’

Penlee House Gallery in Penzance never fails to offer fascinating exhibitions, and their current one is no exception. ‘Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea’: Marine Painting in Cornwall from Turner to Wallis takes its title from Tennyson’s poem ‘Dedication to the Queen’, and indicates the breadth and depth of sea-painting over the period, with a focus – though not exclusively – on paintings of the Cornish coast. The quotation indicates the position of Britain as an island, suggestive of the strength and impassivity of the sea, though in fact it comes from one of Tennyson’s Laureate poems written in praise of Queen Victoria, and the line, which closes the poem, refers to the impregnability of her throne because of the peace and stability of her reign (you can read the poem here).

Turner

Turner’s ‘St Michael’s Mount’ (1834) is one of several paintings of that particular view, and one of the best, though looking much steeper and more impregnable than it does now. Turner’s composition shows wrecked ships overshadowed by the Mount and surrounded by the sea; like many of the pictures in the first room, this is not a chocolate-box view, but rather one which demonstrates the sea as a force ‘inviolate’ indeed, uncaring of the lives it takes. The works on display are more than local scenes, then: some are realist while others more representative, and indicate the huge number of ways in which artists engage with the sea, in working harbours, landscapes, even narrative paintings. Thomas Creswick’s ‘The Land’s End’ is strikingly realist, with carefully detailed geological strata of rock appearing in a style reminiscent of Dyce’s Pre-Raphaelite-inspired works, while Henry Moore’s ‘Seascape’ almost gestures towards abstraction in its focussed colour and vigour.

Creswick

There are three striking images hung together: James Millar’s ‘Cornish Solitude’, Samuel ‘Lamorna’ Birch’s ‘Tol-Pedn’, and Richard Carter’s ‘The Rising Moon and the Day’s Departure’, all depict rocks, sea, and seagulls: no human figure is present, and none could get there (one wonders where the artist was sitting) – the sea is untouchable, inviolate indeed. The threat of the sea is palpable in all: these may be beautiful, picturesque scenes but this is the untamed sea, not simply a decorative image. Those images which do include figures often refer to disasters, past or potential, and again imply the dangers of the sea-faring life more than the tamer appeal of the seaside, though there are a few of these, too.

Millar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The later rooms of the exhibition are a little more tranquil, with more concession to the human figure, and it is interesting to note the shift; as the exhibition guide points out, the approach to sea-painting changed in the twentieth century, away from narrative Victorian approaches of Wallis and Birch, for example, towards an abstraction where form is sometimes dominated by colour. One of Birch’s later paintings, ‘Morning at Lamorna Cove’ (1930s) provides an interesting example of how his work becomes more ‘modern’ in its approach.

Morning at Lamorna Cove

Meanwhile Robert Borlase Smart’s wonderful ‘Moonlit Sea’ of the same period shows how much further other artists had gone: the sea becomes a very different beast in Smart’s hands – an abstract surface of the sea, with colours, angles and patterns appearing on the waves.

Smart moonlit sea

John Mogford’s painting ‘Crossing the Bar – A Break in the Clouds, St Ives’ (1873) reminded me how important the sea was as a metaphor in the nineteenth century. There are several paintings here which reference Victorian writing, but no sea-poem was as powerful in the nineteenth century as Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’ (not even Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, sadly). The ‘bar’ in fact refers (in the painting) to the old wooden pier at St Ives, but the link is clearly made with the sea as a stormy place (life) which must be crossed before we reach Heaven. Numerous hymns and songs of the nineteenth century draw on similar imagery, and the paintings owe something to this poetic history.

A spectacular finale to the exhibition is Albert Julius Olsson’s ‘Stormy Evening on the Cornish Coast’, in which the waves seem visibly and audibly to crash on the shore; again, this work is moving towards abstraction, providing the very essence of the sea. The Penwith Peninsula is one of the most treacherous coastlines in Britain, and the dangers it holds have been felt in the communities here for centuries. This exhibition does justice to this coastline in all its wild beauty.

Ancient stones

I’m endlessly fascinated by stone circles, quoits, burial mounds and so on, and West Penwith in Cornwall is full of them. To me they give a sense of an ancient past, one which we can’t really understand, and perhaps our failure to understand the purpose of many of these stones is part of the appeal. These stones have become an essential part of the landscape, part of the natural habitat though made by people of whom we know nothing, or very little. These were not decorative, or practical, but were often, possibly, part of a kind of worship – of nature, of the sun or the stars, of the world around. Interestingly, as far as I know none are situated in sight of the sea.

One of my favourites is the Merry Maidens or ‘Dans Maen’ (Dancing Stones), near St Buryan (images above). The IMG_3235myth is that girls were dancing on a Sunday, in contravention of the Church’s edicts, and were turned to stone – as well as the stone circle, to each side there is another stone, the piper and fiddler who played the music for their dances, transformed as they tried to run away. There is also a burial chamber. As with so many things, the Victorians’ well-meaning attempts at restoration have altered the original circle, possibly adding a stone, and changing their positions slightly. But the site is still fascinating, filled with wild flowers, and despite the regular arrival of tourists it is a peaceful place with wonderful views. There is more detailed information about the Merry Maidens here. Wandering around the circle, the stones are warm to the touch, the grasses dancing where the girls no longer do; there is something magical in the air. There has been speculation for over a century that another stone circle stood close by;

Another popular site is the Bronze Age Men-an-Tol (more details here). This is a fascinating holed stone (which is the meaning of the Cornish name) with two other upright stones, and it has historically been considered part of a fertility ritual, or as having curative powers (one is meant to crawl through it a certain number of times at sundown, or something like that – the legends vary). Again it is a beautiful situation, in open land, surrounded by fields and with a distant chimney of a tin mine on the horizon. The Historic Cornwall website suggests that this may once have been part of a stone circle, and that “the holed stone would probably have been aligned along the circumference of the circle and would have had a special ritual significance possibly by providing a lens through which to view other sites or features in the landscape, or as a window onto other worlds” – an appealing idea.

IMG_3212 IMG_3211s

IMG_3207

 

 

 

 

 

 

These stones are part of a pre-Christian pagan landscape, in which the stones were imbued with magical qualities. I’m not someone who believes this is still the case – though there are many who do – but there is something mysterious, ancient and powerful in these places. Madron Well and Baptistry indicates early Christian worship, in the tiny ruined chapel, associated with both pagan and Christian worship, which is near a cloutie tree (a tree with ribbons or rags tied to it). Until recently I understand local Methodists held outdoor services here. This, like many other sites, is looked after by the Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network, which offers more information on its website. There are many, many more such sites across Cornwall (and indeed Britain), but the concentration of them in Cornwall, and their survival into the 21st century, perhaps indicates the ways in which Cornwall’s physical isolation from the rest of England has enabled it to maintain such a distinct heritage.

Barbara Hepworth’s Studio

20160711_110310In St Ives on holiday, we visited Barbara Hepworth’s studio and garden, now part of Tate St Ives; Hepworth (1903-1975) died there in a fire about 40 years ago, and in her will asked that Trewyn Studio and gardens, complete with her sculptures and belongings, be opened to the public. Now, it is a tranquil place to visit, and one can imagine the haven it provided for Hepworth, who moved to St Ives in 1939 to escape London in the advent of war.  The move initiated a shift in the focus of her work, to natural forms inspired by the Cornish landscape she grew to love.  This is displayed to great effect with the sculptures in her garden, where a natural sense of form and movement blends with plants, trees and natural light, for which St Ives is remarkable.  Previously Trewyn had been a children’s home, but in 1949, ten years after her move to St Ives, Hepworth fell in love with it and bought it even though she couldn’t afford it, and the garden in particular became integral to her work.

From the dark entrance hall, paved with Delabole slate, which she used for many of her sculptures, and filled with photographs of Hepworth’s life, the visitor emerges into a light, bright studio space equipped with many examples of her work, including the famous stringed designs, sketches, and photographs of the space as it was during Hepworth’s lifetime.  It is also still furnished with pieces of furniture she acquired herself, which give it a homely touch.  Through the studio the garden can be reached, where sculptures are set among an array of plants and flowers, their organic shapes demonstrating Hepworth’s understanding of the holistic form and harmony with nature and landscape.  Winding paths lead around the garden, where one is assailed with the smell of the flowers and the sea, and the sight of nature and art entwined.  The garden is based on a formal layout, which is a relic of the Georgian estate of which it was once a part.

20160711_110328

In the garden is a small, white-painted summerhouse, with a makeshift bed, where Hepworth used sometimes to sleep; there is also a large outdoor studio, consisting of several rooms not unlike a conservatory.  This makes the most of the St Ives light, and is airy and warm, housing a number of cacti, and sometimes a cat, which dozes in a shabby armchair in the sun.  There are also a number of unfinished works in the studio, which adds an unusual sense of immediacy, as though the artist may return at any moment.  Jars of coffee sit side-by-side with glue and varnish on the dusty shelves, and her tools are scattered about.  Hepworth used a number of assistants in her work, especially in later life when she became frail, but her own tools are clearly marked with red tape. While resting in the summerhouse, she could hear her assistants working, and would call out to them if they made a mistake, which she could tell by the sounds of the tools on the material.

20160711_105611

Some of the sculptures are small and unassuming, almost hidden by the foliage in which they reside, while some are towering focal points that demand attention.  These are combined with beautiful flowers, and gnarled trees, which are works of art in themselves.  A small lily pond with a bridge completes the picture.  Somehow the holes in the forms of her sculptures seem to make more sense when trees, flowers and the sky can be seen through them, giving an appropriate sense of context to these smooth and natural forms.  While modern sculpture is not something that appeals to everyone, there is a strong sense here that searching for meaning is beside the point; it is feeling which is important, and the garden is an ideal environment for this.  Unlike a gallery, here you can walk around the sculptures, and give in to the irresistible urge to reach out and touch them.  By walking around and peering through the pieces, a visitor can become a part of the sculpture garden. Visiting with my son, I was fascinated by his enthusiasm for interacting with the sculptures, looking at them from all sides and even touching them.

Hepworth is well known for her exploration of form, especially the “pierced form”, which by means of a hole or depression in a solid mass allows exploration both of form or shape, and material. Like many of her contemporaries in abstract art, she believed in the concept of “truth to material”, where the artist works with rather than against the inherent qualities of the material.  Frequently she worked in wood, but in later life she moved on to bronze sculptures, and it is these and stone sculptures which form the majority of pieces in the garden.  Some are totem-like, giving a feeling of standing in an ancient, pagan landscape, while some are smaller and curved, with strings demonstrating tension in the landscape.  One such sculpture fills up with water when it rains, giving it a fourth dimen20160711_104917sion which adds to the organic feeling of her work.

Although very much rooted in the Cornish landscape, her work was never insular, influenced by international movements in art and sculpture.  At art school in Leeds, she was a contemporary of Henry Moore, and had many friends and acquaintances in the international art scene.  It was after the birth of her triplets in 1934 that she moved to abstract art, and endeavoured to ‘infuse the formal perfection of geometry with the vital grace of nature’.  Her work reflected both her own emotions, and her feelings towards nature, examining seed forms and maternal instincts along with regeneration and regrowth.  This last was considered particularly significant in the post-war world.