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:

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.

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‘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’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.


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.










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.

Jamming with Shakespeare

This week at BCU we had a visit from the Sonnet Man, aka Devon Glover, a New York based rapper who performs Shakespeare in his own unique way. Sonnet Man’s approach is to perform some of Shakespeare’s sonnets as hip hop, with backing tracks, to demonstrate how amazingly flexible the sonnets are, and how well they work in performance; he uses Shakespeare’s own words, but follows this with a ‘breakdown’, which summarises the sonnet in his own words, perhaps picking up particular relevance – to emotions, to everyday lives – which might appeal to his audience. It’s fascinating: Sonnet Man’s performance really is Shakespeare as you’ve never heard him; the brilliance of the simple iambic pentameter, the punch of the alliteration and rhyme, really comes out in this approach. The way in which music, rhythm, poetry and emotions work in the sonnets is very clear. (I have to confess, though, that I’m probably not his target audience, and probably didn’t enjoy it quite as much as some of our students!)

I was interested by the way Devon Glover weaves in his life story – from Brooklyn, looking for a way to better his life through education – as a way to tell the stories of the sonnets. Initially he struggled with Shakespeare, he says, until suddenly it all came to him – through rapping. (Apparently he also teaches maths this way). The way he meshes the apparently opposing cultures of hip hop and Shakespeare is inspiring, and I can see how this would appeal to a lot of people who might not ‘get’ Shakespeare otherwise (though I’m afraid it hasn’t really worked the other way round and converted me to rap), but the performance of Sonnet 17, for example, as a spur to believing in yourself and your own abilities, is bound to inspire. From unsuccessful love affairs to death to academic achievement, Sonnet Man covers it all, and very well; it feels real, somehow, not contrived (‘updated’ performances of Shakespeare can often be rather embarrassing), and I saw its appeal even if I didn’t really feel it myself. Devon Glover makes a great case for the universality of Shakespeare, ripping it away from its middle-class, middle-aged, white British, RP-speaking enclave, and I liked that.

One of my favourite pieces was Hip Hop Hamlet – watch it here:

Book Review: Hold Your Own

I haven’t heard Kate Tempest perform her poetry live (though there is a great video of her reading ‘Hold Your Own’ at Glastonbury) but I’ve just booked to go and hear her in Birmingham in April. 

Tempest is very much known as a performance poet, to the extent that she has been known as reluctant to put words on the page in the conventional way. Watching the video from Glastonbury, you can see why; she’s a great performer, and not all poets are. Her meaning comes across best, you sense, when she tells you her poem, herself, directly; the video makes you feel she’s addressing everyone in the crowd. Now I am someone who mostly reads poetry by long-dead poets, and I quite empathise with whichever critic it was that said that TS Eliot’s punctuation could move him to tears. So you might think that performance poetry, by a poet who is also a rapper, is unlikely to appeal to me. Actually, I liked Hold Your Own, her collection of poems edited by Don Paterson, much more than I expected to. Even on the page, this is clearly performance poetry; perhaps that’s because it is so conversational, so direct. The first and longest poem in the collection, ‘Tiresias’, Hold your ownconcludes:

While we assemble selves online
And stare into our phones,
You are bright and terrifying,
Breath and flesh and bone.

In these few lines we are moved at high speed from the mundane to the terrifyingly ecstatic. The fear of being something sublime, beyond understanding, is conveyed here memorably. Tempest’s poems are in simple forms, on the whole; she doesn’t seem to be a poet who would play with form in the conventional sense, churning out villanelles or terza rima, but she plays with ideas, and with language, in a way which is meaningful as well as immediately accessible. Language in particular seems to be her drug; when she writes ‘Language lives when you speak it. Let it be heard’ she really means it, and her work is peppered with assonance, misrhymes and echoes which work well both in performance and on the page. Steady beats are suddenly interrupted, making the reader (or listener) pay closer attention. These prosodic attributes can, occasionally, become predictable, but Tempest manages this well, on the whole.

The line above is taken from ‘These things I know’. The book is threaded through with the Kate Tempestmyths of Tiresias, blind prophet of ancient myth, who was both man and woman during his lifetime (inspiring Virginia Woolf’s Orlando). Tiresias, known for his aphorisms in Greek plays and his wisdom in all situations, speaks in this poem through pithy sayings, such as ‘Poetry trembles alone, only picked up to be taken apart’ as well as other more universal comments. The character of Tiresias reflects, along with a number of other voices in the poems (including, one suspects, Tempest’s own), the complexities and confusions of gender, sexuality, identity, love – but he is more than just a vehicle for reflecting on gender fluidity; he brings the ideas and poems together.

Tempest’s interest in the classics is manifest in Brand New Ancients, her previous book locating the ancient gods in families in London, for which she won the Ted Hughes poetry prize. The universality of these ancient stories is paramount in her work, and in this – a more conventional volume than her previous work – she nicely treads the line between ancient and modern. Tiresias is painted as a living, breathing figure, from a grubby boyhood to an unexpected womanhood, through lovers, prostitution, and old age. But this Tiresias has the wisdom of the age in which he is written: he is predicting not the downfall of ancient cities, but the tragedy of the modern world, godless, obsessed with image:


you were damned for the things that you did,
or if you didn’t live how the villagers lived.


You’re handed the mould and told – fit in to this.
And maybe one day you could be really big.

In many ways, Tiresias/Tempest’s condemnation of a shallow life reminds me of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, in which the psychiatrist, Dysart, says:

The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes:-alright. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills-like a god. It is the Ordinary made beautiful: it is also the Average made lethal. The Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his priest.

Tempest uses the figure of Tiresias, along with other nameless voices, to indicate that a difficult, complex, painful, fragmented life, which makes no sense, can still have a beauty, a structure, and is still a life capable of holding joy, love and intensity. This isn’t a perfect book, by any means, and some of it begins to tire one’s patience a little, and the final section is both right (in a moral sense) and a bit too tub-thumping. But overall, it’s good; I want to read it again.

There’s a great, nuanced review of the book by Dave Coates here – do read it if you’re interested in Tempest’s work.


‘This Green Earth’: Bridget Macdonald

img_2759Bridget Macdonald’s work seems strangely, immediately familiar, even if you haven’t seen it before. This, I realised after spending time in Worcester City Art Gallery, is because she is painting in a clearly-defined tradition of landscape painting (and, perhaps, because some of her Worcestershire and Herefordshire scenes are local). ‘This Green Earth‘, the exhibition’s title taken from Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey‘,explicitly links Macdonald’s work with Claude Lorrain, Samuel Palmer and Peter Paul Rubens, as creators of a tradition consciously inherited by Macdonald. The effect of this is to indicate not only the significance of this tradition of depicting and celebrating landscape, which is perhaps more vital than ever at a time when we need to be focusing on how to preserve our precious green spaces, but also to demonstrate that landscape painting is not a parochial art: its significance is not limited to its locale. All the paintings in this exhibition tell us eternal truths, about humanity’s relationship to the land, about the changing environment, about the emotional and physical need we have for open spaces, and about the universal appeal of natural beauty.


‘Snowy Woods’ (2012)

The works on display cover five centuries of painting, but there are clear connections, and Macdonald has clearly drawn intentionally on these. Though she lives in Malvern, and describes this as an ‘Arcadian idyll’, she doesn’t ignore modernity: her work incorporates cars and pylons, and a political dimension too, and her work offers ‘a feeling of landscape’ rather than ‘exact representation’. This isn’t about a photographic approach, then: it’s about exploring emotion and thought as well as painterly skill – as all the best art does.

'Ewes' (2012)

‘Ewes’ (2012)

Many of her paintings return to her childhood home on the Isle of Wight, drawing on memory to layer the representation in a different way. Macdonald’s residency at the Barber Institute, University of Birmingham in the 1990s began her interest in exploring landscape art, as she worked directly from landscapes by Claude in particular, transforming them into works with personal meaning for her; some of these are on display here.

The choice of quotation for the exhibition’s title can hardly be coincidence; Macdonald is interested in the interplay between literature and art, notably having produced drawings inspired by Sylvia Plath’s beekeeping poems. ‘Tintern Abbey’ intertwines the self with the landscape, suggesting the communion between the two as a panacea for the ills of the world, and as a way of reconnecting oneself to the world and, ultimately, each other.


‘September Flood’, 2015

The works are oils and charcoals (some of the largest charcoals I’ve seen), ranging from landscapes in snow (in charcoal) to huge bulls, as well as a wonderful pair of scenes from train windows, complete with raindrops. The beauty and immediacy of all the works here really struck me, and the inclusion of Claude, Palmer and Rubens (chosen by the artist from the Ashmolean and the Manchester Art Gallery) is illuminating. The exhibition is inspiring and refreshing, as landscape painting should be, and it’s free, too – go and see it!



‘Farm’ (2005)


Samuel Palmer, ‘The White Cloud’ (1831-2)

E R Hughes: Painting Poetry

Night with her Train of Stars

Night with her Train of Stars

I mentioned in my previous post on the ‘Enchanted Dreams’ exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery that Edward Hughes was inspired by a number of poems. I’m really interested in the interactions between art and literature, and how poetry and painting are often entwined. For the Pre-Raphaelites, many of whom were known to Hughes, poetry and painting were ‘sister arts’, mutually inspirational, and their painting is often very literary – sometimes narrative, usually symbolic, often very detailed so that it can be ‘read’. Many of their paintings were directly inspired by poetry, and of course several Pre-Raphaelites wrote poetry too, most notably Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose poems and paintings go hand in hand.

It’s no surprise, then, that Hughes was inspired by contemporary poets in his work. He tends, however, to take a much less narrative approach than many of the Pre-Raphaelite-affiliated painters, and instead produces something which captures a feeling or a mood, inspired by an image from the painting, perhaps. He is, however, still interested in symbolism, in drawing on a wider web of intertextual references, whilst offering an image that is also very concerned with aesthetics. I find this fascinating: when we read, we ‘see’ in our mind’s eye. When a painting is inspired by a poem, are we seeing the artist’s mind’s eye? How does this affect our reading of the literary work – do we then ‘see’ it differently?

Oh what's that in the Hollow...?

Oh what’s that in the Hollow…?

Although I’m very familiar with Christina Rossetti’s work, the ways in which I ‘see’ her poem ‘Amor Mundi’ is very influenced by Hughes’s Oh What’s that in the Hollow…? ‘Amor Mundi’ is inspired by the traditional Rossettian theme that life is a struggle but we should embrace that struggle or risk damnation. The poem is written in a rapidly moving irregular metre, describing a couple following a downhill path which, metaphorically, leads to Hell. Signs appear along the way to warn them – ‘a meteor … dumb, portentous’, ‘a scaled and hooded worm’, and, finally, ‘in the hollow’, ‘a thin dead body which waits the eternal term.’ It is this last omen which Hughes paints; the painting was unpopular when first exhibited, considered macabre and lacking in explanation, but read in conjunction with Rossetti’s poem it is literally a symbol of the fate which awaits us – a memento mori. The couple see the signs, but determinedly ignore them to the last, even when one of them realises the destination of the path. Hughes’s depiction of the body, pale and emaciated, the eyes half closed in death, surrounded by thorny briar roses which ironically echo Burne-Jones’s Sleeping Beauty, is an imaginative recreation of Rossetti’s image, adding a vicious-looking raven to add to the discomfiting picture. Yet the image also suggests that the body is reclaimed by nature, seeming almost to sink into the earth as the leaves grow over it. The painting is very much in keeping with the poem, which is rich in visual description despite its metaphorical nature.

One of Hughes’s most famous paintings, Night with her Train of Stars, above right, is influenced by a much less famous poem, William Ernest Henley’s ‘Margaritae Sorori‘ (To my Sister Margaret). Henley is now mostly remembered as the poet of ‘Invictus’, but was a prolific and influential writer, critic and editor in his time. Once again this is a visually rich poem, glowing with colours ‘luminous and serene’. It is descriptive of a time and place, opening with birdsong watching the sun fade: the poem begins by drawing on the senses to appreciate the scene, but it becomes clear by the end of the poem that the senses are  fading: this is a poem about death, and the narrator’s desire for a peaceful end which is reminiscent of Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’. The painting, so often reproduced that it can be seen as sentimental or chocolate-box (unfairly, in my view), depicts ‘Night with her train of stars/And her great gift of sleep’ – this is, in essence, the Angel of Death, gently folding an infant in her arms, her finger to her lips as she hushes the cherubim who throng round her. The colours of the painting are as beautiful as those of the poem, indicating a monochromatic scale of blues with the pinpoints of light which Hughes painted so beautifully, and capturing the essence of a peaceful night. Night scatters poppies, symbolising sleep, and it is eternal sleep which she brings.

Fra Lippo Lippi

Fra Lippo Lippi

A very different literary engagement can be found in Hughes’s remarkable portrait, ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’, inspired by Browning’s poem of the same name. Hughes’s red chalk portrait is minutely detailed, appearing photographic at first sight, which offers a pleasing parallel with the nuanced and equally descriptive poem. ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ is one of Browning’s wonderful dramatic monologues, in which we learn a great deal about the speaker, through his garrulous explanation of himself and his actions. Brother Lippo is a reluctant monk, who took his vows through necessity rather than conviction, and remains there for a place to live. His character shines through in the poem as he describes his exploits to attempt to excuse himself after being stopped by the police outside a brothel – his amorous adventures and also his painting are explained; and his character is equally present in Hughes’s work. The combination of poem and painting here provides a great back-and-forth of ideas in art and literature. Browning’s monk says that he ‘made a string of pictures of the world/Betwixt the ins and outs of verb and noun,’ when describing his painting, indicating these twin arts of word and paint, art and poetry. He says that he must ‘Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!’ And it is the soul, perhaps, of a vivacious, energetic monk trying to escape the bondage of the monastery, that Hughes has painted: his Fra Lippo doesn’t look at the viewer, but just past us, as though already moving on to the next thing. Though the young man in the drawing looks in repose, there is a life to his face that suggest he may at any moment begin to regale passers-by.In the poem, he argues his case for realism, for attempting to paint people as they are, for looking closely in order to paint the very essence of life (which reflects the fast-paced realism of Browning’s verse, too), and this is just what Hughes has done, too; he has produced a portrait that the fictional Fra Lippo would have been proud of.